It’s one of the biggest mysteries of the late 19th century: Why did Oscar Wilde go so far as to commence a lawsuit for defamation against his young lover’s father after the father accused the famous poet-playwright of being gay? After all, Wilde was gay, and there was plenty of evidence to prove it.
And once his case collapsed and he was certain to face criminal charges himself for “gross indecency,” why didn’t Wilde take the opportunity to flee London? Due to his refusal to leave, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor and died soon after in poverty.
David Hare, one of England’s most prominent playwrights, tries to answer these questions in his 1998 drama “The Judas Kiss,” which depicts Wilde just hours before his arrest (when he would rather focus on his lunch rather than on his legal predicament) and then as a broken man following his sentence.
An English revival of “The Judas Kiss” starring film actor Rupert Everett (who is expected to play Wilde in a biopic soon) is now playing a limited run at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Wearing a fat suit, Everett delivers a wonderfully detailed and nuanced performance that captures Wilde’s flamboyance, wit and generosity but also stresses his vulnerabilities, especially in the face of Bosie, his self-centered and petulant lover. Everett’s Wilde is a tragic figure trying to maintain his dignity under difficult and desperate circumstances.
Unfortunately, Neil Armfield’s spare and uneven production does not make a strong case for the play, which premiered on Broadway with Liam Neeson two decades ago to unenthusiastic reviews. The first act is packed with drama, but the second act is downbeat and static. Other than Wilde, the characters are painted thin, especially the detestable Bosie. For the record, there’s plenty of nudity throughout.