“Oh come on, we have to get to the party!” drawled a tipsy Coral Browne in her grand quasi-British by way of Melbourne, Australia, accent. Wearing a lavish red gown, a pearl necklace and a mink coat, she personified theatrical glamour. There was a cheery whiff of alcohol in the atmosphere around her. Her husband, Vincent Price was nearby in a black suit, beaming as he signed autographs for us, a small band of his fans. This all took place outside the stage door of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on the evening of April 11, 1978.
It was after the second preview of the solo play Diversions and Delights, in which Vincent Price commanded the stage as Oscar Wilde. Eventually, after everyone’s Playbill or whatever else had been presented to him for his signature had been inscribed, and joyous chitchat had been completed, he lit a cigarette and then he and Browne, arm in arm, regally strode away. The next night, April 12, was the opening. No doubt Price would be acclaimed by the critics, the production therefore would be a smash and he would win the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. Alas, there would be no such triumphs. The New York Times’ review was a tepid mixture of praise and negative citations. The show closed on April 22, after two previews and 13 performances.
“My name is Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, I am not English. I am Irish. Which is quite another thing” was the play’s opening line. Employing a marvelously sustained plummy and melodious cadence, Price transformed his distinctive voice into what we would imagine what Wilde would of have sounded like. Traces of imperishably familiar vocal imprint also were evident. His delivery of the renowned witticisms landed every punchline, inciting perpetual laughter. “I have been been told drama critics can be bought. Judging by their appearance, they can’t be very expensive.” There was also great pathos as Wilde reminisced about kissing a boy, in childhood. “His tears were on my face.” There was the grim recounting of the two years in prison. “If this is how Her Majesty treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any.”
Visually, Price was equally as is impressive. Being 6’ 4,” he was innately physically imposing. That trait, along with his weathered be-rouged face while donning an evocative wig and garbed in costume designer Noel Taylor’s elegantly tatty Victorian velvet ensemble, allowed him to indelibly achieve the look and capture the essence of Wilde. At nearly 67, he was over 20 years older than Wilde would have been at the time. This chronological fact informed his rich portrayal with believability, truly embodying Wilde’s physical ruination and premature agedness, especially when rhapsodizing about absinthe.
As a child horror movie devotee, I was of course fascinated by Vincent Price. House of Wax, Witchfinder General and The Abominable Dr. Phibes are standouts of his career in the genre, yet in old-age there was a “real” supporting performance in The Whales of August, for which he was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award. These turns, many other films and this play, belie the common notion that he was universally hammy and campy. When I learned he would be on Broadway, I had gone to the box office and made sure to get fifth row center orchestra tickets for myself and a schoolmate and so I was able to fully experience this monumental performance.
Playwright John Gay’s canny conceit was that the audience was attending a lecture given by the exiled poverty-stricken Wilde at a Paris concert hall in November 1899, a year before his death. Mr. Gay masterfully wove Wilde’s own words into a swirling biographical narrative. Scenic designer H. R. Poindexter’s period furnishings and Persian carpet made for a wonderful setting that was complemented by his grainy lighting design, transporting us to the past. Tony Award-winning director Joseph Hardy’s expert staging modulated Price’s performance and had him strolling around and sitting with arresting precision.
For Diversions and Delights’ final Saturday matinee on April 22, I was sitting in the Eugene O’Neill’s rear mezzanine. I had to see it again before it closed, and that was where the cheapest tickets were. There were only two of us in that entire upper level, and so the old-time old female usher moved us to the first row. Earlier, it appeared that there weren’t many people in the orchestra either, and so at intermission I took a seat downstairs. This was the first time I went to see a show a second time and it was even more magical.
I intended to go to the stage door again. However, a staff member opened a door near the stage and invited everyone backstage! I have never since witnessed such an occurrence. About a dozen of us walked up the stairs. We were clomping around the stage and touching props. “Hey! Tonight is the last show, and everything has to be in order!” We were now told to form a line in the backstage area with its brick walls.
A stunning blonde woman in a cream outfit, accompanied by a teenaged boy breezed past us. “Why does she get to cut the line?” someone groused. “That’s LAUREN BACALL!” someone else responded. The teenager was Sam Robards, her son with Jason Robards. They entered Price’s dressing room. We could hear Bacall bellowing, and later she and Price laughing. She soon came out, and left with her son.
Clad in a Noël Coward-style dressing gown, still in his wig and makeup, Vincent Price, cigarette in hand emerged. He graciously signed anything everyone desired and gleefully conversed until he announced that he had to rest up for the evening performance and retreated to his dressing room. Sadly, the programs and picture he signed for me vanished over the years during several moves. Sometime ago, I got this window card from Triton Gallery’s $10 bargain bin at a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS flea market.
Prior to Broadway, Diversions and Delights played a five-month U.S. tour that included San Francisco, Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C. Price continued to perform it, doing one-nighters for several years. In 1979, he brought it to Off-Broadway’s Roundabout Theater on West 23rd Street for 36 performances. It was never videotaped, but there’s a 1982 audio recording available on YouTube.
Last year, the National Arts Club presented a screening of House of Wax. Victoria Price, Price’s daughter, spoke afterward about the film and her father. During the question and answer session, I asked her about Diversions and Delights and his feelings about its brief Broadway run. “It was a great success everywhere except in New York” Ms. Price remarked. “He was very disappointed by that. He felt that as an actor, it was the best thing he had done.”