Monday, February 1, 2010

Aging with Dorian Gray

Some of the hardest reviews to do are those where you wish you could write something favorable, but you know that if you do, you’d be something less than honest. And that’s the case here. Students from my alma mater brought a show off-off Broadway, and I wanted to be able to champion their successes. Having served as the theater editor for Columbia Spectator, I was eager to follow this production to its new digs on Theatre Row. But watching Daniel Mitura’s stage adaption of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray made me think that this rendition wasn’t ready for a midtown audience.

Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the significance we ascribe to youth and beauty, and uses art as a mirror to reflect the actions we take in life. An artist enamored with his subject, Basil paints the portrait of 20-something Dorian Gray. But once Basil’s friend, Henry enlightens Dorian about the power and influence of the beautiful, Dorian wishes that he could stay forever young and that the painting would age instead of him. (Think kind of a darker twist on Tuck Everlasting.)

I confess that I’ve never read the book, but I have no doubt that writing an adaptation of such would be challenging. Mitura penned his version of Dorian Gray in 2004, well before earning his bachelor’s in Art History from Columbia College this past spring. But the play lacks a consistent voice (Mitura v. Wilde), leaving some characters to spout philosophy while others speak conventionally, with neither narration nor exposition to tie the two together.

While Mitura’s fourth off-Broadway production received some creative input from the Columbia/Barnard theater group, NOMADS, its director, Henning Hegland (from Columbia’s School of the Arts) ultimately inherited a stage on which two title characters are left to carry the play. Henry (Vayu O’Donnell) and Dorian (Wil Petre) are satisfactory in their roles mentor and protégé, respectively. But Henry, who walks with the assistance of a cane, appears to be a talking head that extols the virtues of youth using a vocabulary 10x that of all the other characters. Being the strongest actor in this hodgepodge of a cast, O’Donnell helps to convey Wilde’s wisdom at select moments. But Henry may have worked better on the page where you can relish in certain passages, underlining the parts you want to remember. In Mitura’s Dorian Gray, the philosophy lesson is too fast, too contradictory and frankly too much for one intermissionless sitting.

Petre’s initial carefree demeanor, albeit gawky, thankfully offsets some of the weightiness of Henry’s lines. But soon Dorian grows evil and manipulative, and here Petre has the greatest command of his character. He struts around like an egomaniacal prince, both satisfied that he’s retained his youth but horrified at the portrait he witnesses vilifying before his eyes. But where there should be gruffness, on occasion, there’s whininess. Petre’s voice can grow grating, which doesn’t befit a character who is supposed to be such an Adonis of a man.

A velvet rope cordons-off the other supporting actors who dress in period garb and strike various poses. Hegland succeeds here in giving the stage a museum feel that hints at the disconnect between life and art, but the framed characters existed merely to advance the plot and contribute very little to the take home message. I suppose this is a good thing, though, as their acting spans the range from over-exaggeration (Christina Broccolini as Dorian’s first love, Sybil) to woodenness (Jade Rothman as Sybil’s protective older brother).

Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the most affecting moments of the evening is one without words. Henry and Basil (a genuine Leif Huckman) run powder through their hair to show their age, while Dorian slicks his back with gel (maybe water?) and a dresser lends two extra hands to button the vest of his three-piece suit. It’s an inventive way to show the passage of time, and makes for a nice picture.

It’s unfortunate then that the rest of the play falls so two-dimensionally flat, reminding me that unlike Dorian, I had in fact aged in the span of 90-minutes.

For further reading, I suggest a feature written by my fellow Speccie, Joy Resmovits:
Directed by Henning Hegland, The Picture of Dorian Gray is adapted by Daniel Mitura and based on a novel by Oscar Wilde. It runs through Feb. 6 at the Kirk Theatre, which is located on Theatre Row at 410 W. 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues). Tickets are $18. For more information, please visit

PHOTO CREDIT: The cast of Dorian Gray / by Ofer Zimchi

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