Diversions & Delights tells the story of an older and wiser Oscar Wilde. Having recently been released from prison for his homosexual behavior, the traumatized and battered public figure has alienated his country and retreated to exile in Paris. In an attempt to make some quick money, he adopts the nomme de plume “Sebastian Melmouth” and provides a paying audience with a lecture that covers topics from art to love to death. Under the subtle and effective direction of Kevin G. Shinnick, this mounting focuses on exposing the human elements of a man who tries his best to be above humanity.
Gay is most successful at capturing Oscar Wilde’s unique sense of humor and incomparable aptitude for turning a phrase on its head. His extended monologue sequences draw expertly from Wilde’s famous texts such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, mimicking his particular circular argument structures. If nothing else, Gay’s Wilde is full of thoughts few people, if any at all, have spoken aloud: “Persons are better than principles…and persons with no principles are better than anything else” and “All art is useless…the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely” stick out as memorable quips. Gay keeps us on our toes throughout; by the time we have had ample time to comprehend one twisting witticism, he has already hurled three more at us.
Despite its linguistic virtues, Diversions & Delights falters ever so slightly in its structural components. Gay, perhaps most known for penning the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Separate Tables, has proven himself to be a practiced and polished storyteller; however, a one-man show is a different and, arguably, more challenging beast to conquer. While his engaging thematic questions and smooth segues do their best to propel the narrative’s action forward, the fact remains that there is little action to propel. This two act, just under two-hour long monologue might prove even stronger after a healthy trim.
Ultimately, any one-man show is as strong or as weak as its, well, one man; I am thus happy to report that the California and New York stage veteran Craig Dudley delivers a varied, engaging portrait of a fascinating academic and socialite who is at once intolerably pompous and endearingly human. I could not tell you what the actual Wilde moved or sounded like, but Dudley’s strong character choices make any attempts at comparison unnecessary. His Wilde is bright and bold, with a booming baritone voice, a large emotional breadth, and a winningly wicked grin.
Gay’s piece is both academic and emotional, haughty and human, (to use Wilde’s word) “tedious” and compelling. It simultaneously condescends and compliments its audience. Like its subject, Diversions & Delights is similarly something of a paradox.
Diversions & Delights (March 5 – 8, 2015)
The Ensemble Theatre Company of New York
Stage Left Studio, 214 W. 30th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets or information, call http://www.stageleftstudio.net
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes including one intermission