* Writer: David Hare * Director: Richard Eyre * Starring: Liam Neeson, Tom Hollander * Broadhurst Theatre, New York City

Oscar Wilde was a pervert -- a quixotic individual who, like many a great artist, was unafraid to stand in opposition to the society in which he lived -- and should you need further proof, witness The Judas Kiss. David Hare’s play revolves around two of Wilde’s most monumental acts of perversity. Act one takes place the afternoon that Wilde’s ill-judged libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury, the crazed father of his boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas, has collapsed. It’s only a matter of time before the police arrive to arrest him for sodomitical episodes a long list of rentboys stand ready to confirm. Reporters crowd his hotel lobby. A lynch mob gathers outside. Every fag in town has decamped for France. Oscar’s trusted friend Robert Ross (Peter Capaldi) has packed his bags, cashed a check for him, and hired a cab to speed him to the train station to catch the last ferry across the channel. The insufferably self-centered “Bosie” Douglas (the expertly obnoxious Tom Hollander), on whose behalf Wilde brought the disastrous libel action, has been warned not to detain Oscar a single minute. Then the man himself (Liam Neeson) arrives, and he’s strangely unpanicked. He banters with the hotel servants, he uncorks champagne, he orders lunch. One minute he seems to heed Ross’s urgency about leaving, the next he’s letting Bosie wheedle him into staying. His behavior is frightening, infuriating, appalling, and yet admirable in its defiance. “I shall not run down the hole they have dug for me,” he says, and he arranges himself with a cigarette and a book, ready for his close-up.

Act two opens with another cigarette, another book, yet everything has changed. Out of prison, ill of health, and penniless, Wilde is in Naples, and against the wishes of all his friends and family he is once more with Bosie, though Bosie is not exactly with him. In bed with a local fisherman, he pouts and whines about how he is as much of a victim as Oscar. Ross arrives with word from Wilde’s wife Constance, who offers him financial support -- if he agrees not to see Bosie. No sooner has Wilde sent Ross packing than Bosie announces that his mother has paid him off to leave Oscar. Utterly betrayed, Wilde nonetheless bestows a Christ-like blessing on Bosie, openly inviting the Biblical gesture that gives the play its title.

One of England’s finest playwrights, the flagrantly heterosexual Hare has written a sympathetic and textured character study of the gay icon that allows numerous paradoxical aspects of Wilde’s existence to stand side by side. This Oscar is at once heroic and cowardly, wise and foolish, his gruesome fate a triumph of independent spirit and a failure of his ability to imagine himself anew. Surprisingly for such a gripping play, the Broadway production isn’t much fun to watch. As one might expect from a film star, Neeson captures the surface of the role. yet he’s unable to embody the heart and substance of Wilde, whose sometimes infuriating choices emanated from an impenetrable mystery. Physically, he’s a tightly wound weasel compared to Wilde’s big soft walrus. (Perhaps his heterosexuality works against him -- by comparison, Stephen Fry delivers a sublime impersonation in Brian Gilbert’s current film Wilde.) And Richard Eyre’s direction has the stodgy unpoetic feel of a soap opera, delivering many fewer flavors than exist in Hare’s intriguing script.

The Advocate, June 9, 1998

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