You probably know about The Picture of Dorian Gray, at least in broad outline. After having his portrait painted, a man goes through life without aging, remaining as healthy and vigorous as the day he was painted. His portrait, however, takes on the characteristics not only of the advancing years but of the moral and intellectual sickness he has come to embody.
Oscar Wilde’s novel, which has passed through nearly one hundred twenty years without aging itself, gets an update from fabulist playwright (and Georgetown graduate) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s in a Round House Theatre world premiere. As we have come to expect of Aguirre-Sacasa, whose Velvet Sky thrilled audiences at Woolly Mammoth in 2006, Dorian is exciting and entertaining. What’s more, Director Blake Robinson gives it a polished production and a strong cast. But is it the provocative emotional powerhouse that Wilde’s novel is, and that Aguirre-Sacasa attempted to create? I’m afraid not. The play smothers its own moments of highest impact, and in the second act, it runs out of gas.
In Aguirre-Sacasa’s Dorian Gray, Dorian (Roderick Hill) is a handsome young man enjoying the good life in 1988 London with his friends. and Basil (Clinton Brandhagen), a young artist who is tortured by his unrequited love for Dorian, has painted a portrait of Dorian which has captured his soul. In a Faustian twist, Dorian will retain his youthful appearance while this portrait will reflect Dorian’s inner beauty or ugliness.
Dorian is also in love with the beautiful actress Sybil Vane (Julia Proctor). But he is also in love with a life of hedonism, in which physical and artistic beauty holds the highest value. When he brings his friends Basil, Harry (Sean Dugan), and Alan (Joel Reuben Ganz) to see Sybil perform on stage, a nervous Sybil gives an uncharacteristically bad performance. Dorian, after seeing Sybil stripped of her artistic beauty, dismisses her and leaves London to pursue a darker moral path.
The first act establishes the characters effectively and reveals the story in a theatrical manner. The story moves swiftly; the dialogue is sharp and the rapport between the friends seems natural. Dorian’s initial descent into darkness is both dramatic and believable. The playwright also makes some wise departures from the novel, such as making Sybil’s fate more ambiguous and extending the life of a key character.
As the story goes on, though, it loses its impact. None of Dorian’s subsequent actions have the power of his initial rejection of Sybil. Later acts of violence are brief or less than shocking, or they occur offstage. While the playwright takes advantage of the opportunity to satirize modern life and morality by moving events to Los Angeles, the story seems to lose momentum.
In addition, Dorian becomes an increasingly less sympathetic character. In a novel we are in his head, and can consider his moral conflicts explained in detail. On the stage, he is in front of us, and we are confronted with his acts, in all their loathsomeness, without explanation.
Finally, it is hard to portray Dorian’s ultimate fate on stage. In the play the final outcome is narrated by Harry’s wife Victoria (Kaytie Morris) and it comes off as anticlimactic.
All that being said, I must note that the story receives a fine production from the entire Round House team. Robison keeps the action moving and engineers seamless scene changes through the use of moving panels and a turntable. Scenic designer James Kronzer comes up with a bunch of terrific sets, and lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner effectively helps set the mood and highlight the multiple actor-narration interludes.
Among the cast, Sean Dugan as Dorian’s cynical friend Harry and Kaytie Morris as his tart-tongued wife are especially effective. Brandhagen’s Basil is convincingly obsessed with both his art and with Dorian. Julia Proctor gives wonderful performances not only as the sympathetic and mistreated Sybil, but also as four other women that are intertwined with Dorian’s depravity in a continuous loop of torment. On the other hand, the use of Joel Ruben Ganz, a powerful and distinctive actor, to double as Alan and Sybil’s brother James turns out to be distracting.
Toward the end of this ambitious and flawed play, I imagined that Basil had gone off and painted a script. That script would show us, in full and without cushion, the horrible things that Dorian had done in the name of beauty, while somehow simultaneously allowing us to understand the tortured thoughts and impulses of this ambitious and flawed man, this Dorian Gray. And when Aguirre-Sacasa finds that script – or a picture of that script – man, watch out.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Based on the novel by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Blake Robison
Presented by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.