‘Dorian Gray’ and the Wonderful Drama of Moral Decay

Chip Sherman. Photo by John Ulman

Well into The Picture of Dorian Gray, the haughty Lord Henry Wotton turns to his friends after a night at the theatre and declares, “It is not good for one’s morals to see bad acting.”

If such is the case, viewers of Book-It Repertory Theatre’s stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s notorious tale need not worry about their souls. The play’s three lead actors nail their characters’ mannerisms, emotional and intellectual arcs and, despite playing upper-class dandies without much to do but gossip, drink and attend parties, each actor animates his character with careful nuance. There are moments where the lightweight problems of the aristocratic set—boredom, too many love interests, falling in love with the wrong person—seem laughably shallow, but the human emotion beneath the surface is universal and worthy of reflection.

Known widely for his poetry and plays, Wilde first published his only novel as a short story in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. Shocked by its sexual and homoerotic overtones, the magazine’s editor removed more than 500 words from the story without telling Wilde. Dorian Gray still caused a moral outrage among readers and critics in London, some of whom said Wilde should be charged for breaking the laws guarding public morality. In 2011, Wilde’s original, uncensored typescript was published for the first time, and this is the version that Book-It presents, in an adaptation by Judd Parkin directed by Victor Pappas.

Set in Victorian London, the story of Dorian Gray starts with Basil Hallward (Jon Lutyens) and Lord Henry Wotton (Brandon J. Simmons) in the former’s painting studio on a hot summer morning. As Hallward adds the finishing touches to portrait of a beautiful young man, Lord Wotton bombards him with questions until Hallward reveals the sitter’s identity as Dorian Gray (Chip Sherman), a young man of means.

Hallward begs the infamously amoral Lord Wotton to stay away from Gray, known as he is for corrupting those around him. At that moment Gray arrives for a visit. After seeing his portrait, Gray wishes aloud to retain his unspoiled youth and, in a Faustian exchange, have the portrait take on the wrinkles of age.

As Gray, Sherman metamorphoses from someone flirting with danger for the thrill of it to someone over his head in the muck of depravity. He starts out oozing simpering self-interest and childlike wonder, reveling in the effect he has on everyone around him—his movements are light and playful, his smile flattering. We watch him move through society, his youthful appearance intact as he runs through friends, using them for his own pleasures, then patronizing brothels and drug dens, slinking home at dawn to avoid being seen, shoulders hunched under a long cape.

As Gray falls deeper and deeper into his hedonistic lifestyle, the portrait bears not only the physical signs of his aging but also acts as a mirror to his corrupted soul. The portrait in the production isn’t actually a portrait at all, it’s a large empty gold frame—verbal descriptions from the cast chart the portrait’s evolution, a device that places Wilde’s prose center stage.

In Gray’s deepest moments of anguish and his earnest proclamations that he “want[s] to be good,” we see his internal conflict laid bare. Despite his despicable nature, we feel for Gray, knowing that his fall wasn’t entirely his fault. No, that fault lies with Wotton, a cunning man who revels in luxury and wanton behavior. Simmons embodies the Lord’s inflated confidence, walking with a swagger in his step, the attitude that money can solve anything and the certainty that “youth is the one thing worth having.” He manipulates everyone around him like a jolly puppet master with a dark soul.

Scenic designer Pete Rush captures a moody, Gothic-inspired vibe with a series of large wooden trestle-beam arches running from the length of the stage, evoking both a lofty painter’s studio and the creaky old attic where Gray hides his aging portrait. Smoke is gently pumped onto the stage at all times, hinting at cigarette smoke-filled rooms (both Lord Wotton and Gray smoke like chimneys) and foggy London streets.

Much like in a Greek play, a chorus serves to move the narrative forward, reciting lines from the novel between and during scenes, as well as acting out flashbacks at the back of the stage. They also hover oppressively around the frame each time Gray examines his portrait’s deterioration, a gimmick that distracts from Sherman’s strong performance. The otherwise solid production does a fantastic job of reminding us of the chilling, overlooked fact that every single choice we make will in some way be with us for the rest of our lives.

The Picture of Dorian Gray runs through July 1.