John Gay's "Diversions and Delights" begins with Oscar Wilde on the skids, and ends with the writer triumphant. This one-man play presents Wilde giving a lecture on his life and work to a Parisian audience; banned from England after his release from prison, he is living on the Continent without any visible means of support and needs the lecture fee to keep him in funds -- and in absinthe, which he drinks copiously.
The beginning of the play is indeed diverting and delightful. Wilde knew a thing or two about disarming an audience, and he introduces himself and his thoughts on everything from art and politics to the influence of Niagara Falls on American married life (the first of its many disappointments). He even has a few waspish comments about critics -- completely untrue, of course. A couple of hours of this, well presented, would make an amusing enough evening, but author Gay has something much more compelling in mind.
Wilde gradually abandons his patter and delves deeper into his own life -- talking about the horrors of his trial and imprisonment, his love of "Bosie" (Lord Alfred Douglas, his lover for several years) and his betrayal by the man he loved -- and bares his soul to his audience. The play is set in 1899; Wilde died in 1900, and the man in "Diversions and Delights" definitely has intimations of his mortality. "Absolution comes from the confession and not from the priest," he says at one point -- and the play has the air of a confession. But this confession is not self-pitying or self-justifying; it's defiant and almost ennobling, coming from a man who truly knows himself and is not ashamed.
"Diversions and Delights" has an odd history. It was written in the 1970's for Vincent Price, who toured successfully in it and even brought the show briefly to Broadway. And then, nothing -- this production at MuCCC, directed by Michael Arve, is its first community theater performance since then. This is a bit hard to fathom, as it seems like a demanding but rewarding vehicle for the right kind of actor, and, perhaps, the right kind of audience.
The production certainly has the right kind of actor in Peter Doyle, who gives a tremendously engaging and moving performance as Oscar Wilde. Doyle has been a wonderful ensemble player in countless productions, but here he is the center of attention and is absolutely riveting. He doesn't impersonate Wilde -- in fact he looks nothing like him, and appears much healthier than the writer did in his last years -- but he does seem to inhabit this unique writer in his wit and in his rage. Doyle's performance is absolutely in control, wonderfully detailed, yet spontaneous and emotionally wide-ranging. You could learn more from studying Peter Doyle's pauses and inflections in this role than from two years of acting classes.