Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is sleep-inducing

 Gross Indecency certainly lives up to its name. I was bored within three minutes of this play, subtitled The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, commencing. Renowned playwright Moises Kaufman has painstakingly Scotched together a seemingly endless litany of quotes, biographical sketches and transcripts from and about Wilde's late-19th-century sodomy trials, and the result, now on view at iTheatre Collaborative, plays like what it is: a history lesson so inert that it induced sleep not only in some of its audience, but in one of its cast members, as well.

Kaufman's play is set in a courtroom, where eight male actors sit and stand and occasionally walk around a little while reciting from books, newspaper articles, and court dockets concerning the infamous trials that ruined Wilde's life and career. Nearly every line of dialogue is followed or preceded by an attribution, called out by one or another of the actors, which makes for a very precise, very literary evening but not an especially entertaining one. To make matters worse, the attributions are also flashed on a massive screen mounted above and behind the actors, giving the effect that one is not at the theater but rather at a junior college lecture.

Some better-than-decent talent is being squandered here: Mike Traylor and Greg Lutz, both gifted actors, have little more to do than declaim and arch the occasional eyebrow. In the central role, Michael Tassoni is the sock-it-to-me guy whose job it is to stand center-stage, smirking and pointing his chin at the audience, tossing bon mots at the other actors and looking imperious. It's not so much a performance as a set of acting tricks that reduced Tassoni's performance to an impersonation — not of Wilde, but of a footman at one of London's lesser hotels.

Steven J. Scally, whose direction of The Shadow Box I still remember with awe, did what he could to punch up what amounts to little more than a structured reading. But all the audiovisual tricks (which include a cheerless Act Two video interview with Scally as Kaufman) merely distracted us from the soporific recitation without adding any real texture.

To be fair, there's little more to be done with Kaufman's play than these nine men have accomplished. Gross Indecency played more than 600 performances in New York, but iTheatre's production — the only one I've seen of this play — had me wondering: How?

There were things to like, I suppose. I admit I couldn't stop staring at Ryan Nelson, not because he was doing anything interesting, but because of his more-than-passing resemblance to Wilde himself. And in all the many years I've reviewed theater, I had never before seen an actor fall asleep onstage until now. I won't tell you which of the players nodded off; that doesn't seem sporting. But I'll tell you this: I wanted to join him.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela