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DELIGHTFULLY DARK: TheatreNOW serves up ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ with biting delight

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Oscar Wilde’s one and only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” is many things to a reader: a hedonistic display of love versus passion versus art; a philosophical rendering about the human experience; an in-depth psychological look at the cost of morality; and a testament to the power of a muse. It showcases the lengths people will go to satiate their innermost desires and maintain or break loyalties. Considering it was published in 1891 and heavily dealt with homosexuality, the controversy it provoked in Victorian England was unprecedented, to some degree. However, Wilde defended his work as an artist, and his famous preface has become hailed by many, especially in its criticism of critics.

CARRYING THE SCRIPT: The cast of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ provide a dark yet fulfilling night out at the theatre. Photo by David Heck.

CARRYING THE SCRIPT: The cast of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ provide a dark yet fulfilling night out at the theatre. Photo by David Heck.

Mostly known for his famed plays, like “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” it’s appropriate for “Dorian Gray” to be turned into a play as well and face the critics once again. The version TheatreNOW is hosting, adapted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, keeps the debauchery of Wilde’s words but moves the story into 1990 London, where a group of friends are coming of age at university. A dashing Dorian Gray is the muse for fledgling artist and pal Basil Hallward, who secretly is in love with Dorian. Basil has produced a portrait of Dorian that “makes the old seem new again,” according to their pal, Harry, who is hosting an art show at a warehouse and wants to include the portrait. Harry’s girlfriend and resident snarkstar, Vicky, attends the show, along with their savage friend, Alan, and Dorian’s new actress-of-a-girlfriend, Sybil. The art show is a success, with all work selling except the portrait, to which Dorian—quite enamoured by it himself—keeps. Along the way, he has made a wish to forever maintain his youth and dapper looks, and circumvent the vile process of aging, disease and death. In essence, he sells his soul to the devil, and thus our protagonist/antagonist becomes a supernatural serial killer.

Aguirre-Sacasa’s script makes Wilde’s words quite accessible to a younger generation of readers who, in their 140-character tweets and shortened attention span of news-gathering, may not give it a chance in book form—even if it’s only around 300 pages. Though not terribly hard to follow in dialogue, the Faustian tale certainly can get heavy philosophically—but no more than taking PHI 101. Aguirre-Sacasa knows pop culture well, considering his writing credentials include Marvel Comics and television series like “Glee” and “Big Love”; currently, he oversees the creative department at Archie Comics. He understands exchanges of quippy, youthful interaction; the phrase “mercy fuck” even makes an appearance (which, dare I presume, Wilde would likely approve of today). I like Aguirre-Sacasa’s choice to move the setting out oft he 19th century. Personally, having attended college in the ‘90s, I found it delightful reliving moments of raves in church basements and listening to Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” during dinner intermission—the latter a nice touch from director David Heck who curated our meals in between scenes to ‘90s rock/pop. 

Where some of the play goes awry is in its length, but maybe that’s because, when set to dinner theatre, there are two intermissions for the audience to eat. The final act seemingly lasts longer than the first two and can weigh itself down with Dorian’s friends browbeating him to find a greater moral compass. However, having attended numerous shows at TheatreNOW, I’ll take this one’s length, depth and cheeky humor any time over mildly funny and predictable plotlines. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is easily in the top three shows I’ve seen at TheatreNOW because the work has more breadth, and the cast does a good job with the heavy-handed material.

Grant Hedrick as Dorian has a soft, subtleness to his looks, which are reminiscent of Hugh Grant. It’s befitting, seeing as he is a villainous playboy. Hedrick has a calm demeanor about his Dorian, which makes the charm of a serial killer feel palpable. Even when he transforms into a hustling grifter and maniac, he possesses a subdued rage that is terrifying in its lack of conscientiousness. The only problem comes in the end, when we see his transformation back: There is little discernment between the two extremes of his personality—good versus evil—so after all is said and done, he feels a bit one-note. But maybe those are the scariest kinds of people—when we can’t tell if they really are one or the other.

A few members of the cast take on multiple roles in the show, including Kai Knight, who plays the no-holds-barred Alan and the silent-violent James. Alan is a biochemist who attends art shows for only two reasons: boozing and whoring. He loves alcohol and women and he doesn’t mind showing it. Knight has a barbaric delivery perfect for capping off Alan as a narcissistic asshole; yet, the wryness of his style and cadence gives him suave that makes him appealing. We know he isn’t inherently bad, just misled. When Knight becomes Sybil’s brother, James, who is clearly reticent but with a temper that will billow fast, the scope of Knight’s talent is immediately apparent. He is wonderful and captivating every time he is onstage.

Matching him is Kendall Walker, who plays Sybil and Karen. As Sybil, Walker is delightful in her eager flirtation and willingness to please. Newfound relationships do that to women, and her gah-gah eyes for Dorian are doey enough to get lost in. When he breaks her heart, her disbelief is great, in that Walker doesn’t emote as an American drama queen would, but in the British way of barely shedding a tear—something she’s even proud of. When Walker transforms into a 17-year-old wannabe actress in LA.. toward the end of the show, she nails the apathy of youngsters doing anything to be famous, all with lack of integrity that can face off to the depth of Dorian’s evil.

Jay Zadeh as Harry is a nice blend of optimistic naiveté and misappropriated confidence—wherein very little is of importance to him except what he wants to do and see and be with. Harry is likable, sometimes offensive in his selfishness—like when he brags for cheating on Vicky because he can get away with it. Together with Kat Rosner on his arm, they’re a perfect pair. Rosner’s Vicky—“Frosty Vicky,” as Alan calls her—would be my friend in real life. She’s enough combination of honey and vinegar to fill out a flavor profile to near perfection. I love her animation backed by sarcasm.

Chandler Burns as Basil brings fury and fervor to the tortured and starving artist role. While necessitated in the character—after all, he is vying for love that will never happen—sometimes it’s just over-the-top. Derek West succeeds in his three side roles as senator, detective and Theo, along with Julia Jansen who does double duty as Christina and a girl on the train. Sometimes, in the small amount of time they are onstage, they’re inaudible. Maybe it’s because of a few rowdy moments with dishes banging and scraping, and folks chewing, and general sounds of dinner theatre, which audiences and actors must take into consideration. But Chef Denise Gordon’s carrot flan puts the delight in dinner theatre to a tee, so never are there regrets.

First off, I am not a flan lover as a dessert. But savory flan? Bring. It. On. I could eat Gordon’s dish daily, it is so decadent. Smooth, creamy, rich, and slightly sweet, topped with toasted buckwheat, the textures and flavors are spot on. (I loved it so much, I asked my waiter for the recipe, to which Gordon obliged!) The chicken Wellington is a rich bite of flavorful duck pâté and earthy truffle sauce that tastes great though it doesn’t moisten the dry chicken; it’s wrapped in a sweet, buttery puff pastry. The seafood duo scores one for two, with the shrimp and lobster eclair topping out over a dry and overcooked coconut-crusted tuna. The chocolate torte sweetens the ending, despite some of the most gruesome scenes unfolding onstage. 

Director Heck and the cast have done a good job in bringing this dark rendering of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to Wilmington audiences. Chef Denise Gordon counterbalances it all sweetly with biting delight.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Through August 26, Fri. and Sat. only; doors at 6 p.m.; show at 7 p.m.
Tickets: $18-$42
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10 St.

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