"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about," says Lord Henry Wotton, and the audience erupts with laughter. Immediately, everyone remembers why we are here to see The Picture of Dorian Gray—to bask in the genius of Oscar Wilde, his brilliant one-liners, his scary subtexts, his delight at the paradoxes of beauty.
A few minutes later, Lord Wotton says: "I don't care for brothers. My elder brother won't die, and my younger brothers never seem to do anything else."
A few minutes after that: "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."
The actor Brandon J. Simmons plays Lord Wotton, and in essence steers the show, in part because Wilde uses the character as a stand-in for himself (delivering the one-liners, reflecting on events as they transpire), and in part because Simmons projects an effortless confidence and charisma. The makeup and costumes (designed by Ron Erickson) bring the passage of time to startling life across Simmons's face, enhancing the story. The lighting design by Andrew D. Smith is clever and subtle. And the scenic design by Pete Rush smartly suggests both a blank innocence and an increasingly constricting tunnel of entrapments.
Director Victor Pappas has done a masterful job of balancing the design team, the actors, the humor, the pathos, and the shocking turns in Wilde's classic fairy tale. For the uninitiated: It's a story of youth and art and malice and a painting that comes to life. It's a painting of a boy named Dorian Gray, a painting that captures Dorian Gray's essence to such a frightening degree that the painting ages (revealing further shades of Dorian's essence) as real-life Dorian stays the same age. As Dorian's narcissistic soul darkens, the painting develops an evil look, and eventually begins to sweat blood.
The story is also filled with suicide, deception, adultery, murder, facetiousness, and the punishing effects of having a conscience, or not having one. "Youth is the one thing worth having," Lord Wotton tells Dorian. "Beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation." Whether or not he means this ironically, Dorian takes it to heart.
Endlessly young, self-satisfied Dorian is played by Chip Sherman with a smirking and radiant ruthlessness. With dark, curly locks, he embodies the key dichotomy: He's lovely and evil simultaneously. A chorus of bit players, which Pappas wields tremendously effectively, includes such talents as Imogen Love and Michael Patten. There are no weak links in the cast (which also includes Jon Lutyens as Basil and Anastasia Higham as Sibyl).
Overall, the show serves as a sharp, happy reminder of how good good theater can be. Even two perpetually unimpressed gay acquaintances I cornered in the lobby afterward conceded that the last moment of the show was a triumph of staging. This production is galvanizing. It's the kind of night of theater that makes you thankful you left the house. "Thank god we came to this!" was the attitude on everyone's faces as I walked out of the theater. How often does that happen?