The English dramatist David Hare has a great deal in common with an Irish playwright who caused trouble in turn-of-the-century London. But that playwright is George Bernard Shaw, not Oscar Wilde. Hare, like Shaw, tends to write overtly political plays that dramatize contemporary issues.
Yet it is Wilde, not Shaw, to whom Hare is drawn for his latest play.
Both its strength and its weakness, indeed, are that Hare is going against his instincts. He is a supremely rational writer trying to understand an utterly irrational act.
"The Judas Kiss," the last play of the Broadway season, deals with Wilde's disastrous fall from grace.
The first act is set on the day in 1895 when Wilde is about to be arrested for homosexual practices but still has a chance to flee. In the second act, we see him in Naples two years later, after his release from prison.
Logically, Wilde should have taken the chance to slip quietly out of England. As Hare shows in the first act, he knew that he had little chance of beating the rap. He knew, too, that the authorities were deliberately delaying his arrest on the assumption that his flight would confirm his guilt without the bother of a trial.
Hare asks why such a brilliant man would choose humiliation and prison. As his lover Lord Alfred Douglas points out in the second act, Wilde did not even go to the stake as a martyr for gay rights. In his trials, he lied about his homosexuality.
So why did he do it? Hare's answer is simple and profound love.
"The Judas Kiss," oddly and intriguingly, is at heart a religious play. Hare sees Wilde as an all-too-human Christ, crucified for loving the man who betrays him. He shapes the first act as a Last Supper, the second as a return from the grave.
This way of imagining Wilde imposes an enormous burden on the broad shoulders of Liam Neeson, who plays him. He can't construct the usual kind of performance where a character emerges through doubts and conflicts.
Instead, he has to show us a man who has moved beyond conflict. Hare's Wilde walks toward doom with his eyes fully open. He knows that he will be destroyed. He knows, too, that Tom Hollander's splendidly self-pitying Lord Alfred is not really worthy of the sacrifice.
In the first act, this is tough on Neeson, largely because Hare wants to have things both ways. On one hand, he tries to create an atmosphere of great drama the train on which he is to leave is, literally, at the station. On the other, there is no real drama at all since, in his heart, Wilde has already decided to meet his fate.
There is also, right at the start, an enactment of a servant and a chambermaid, both naked, having sex. Unlike the male nudity in the second act, which has a clear dramatic function (and which does not include Neeson), this is entirely gratuitous. It suggests that the play is to be seen as a piece of dirty realism an expectation it cannot fullfil.
Neeson, understandably, struggles to get a fix on his role. Hare doesn't give him a scene with Douglas in which we can really sense the source of their love. He falls back on comments about England that are witty enough but, in this context, beside the point.
Even with Bob Crowley's magnificent design and Richard Eyre's precise direction, then, the first act falls uncomfortably between the political and the spiritual.
In the second act, though, Hare's purpose is clearer and Neeson responds superbly. Now, Wilde is beached on a bleak, hopeless shore. Neeson sits in an armchair, watching Lord Alfred and a young fisherman he has picked up. He is visited by his old lover Robbie Ross (the excellent Peter Capaldi), who tempts Wilde with an agonizing offer from his wife leave Douglas and he can see his beloved children.
Here, with the focus on Wilde's heart and soul, Neeson has the haunting dignity of a great ship on the rocks irreparably ruined but still withstanding the waves. He achieves the sad grandeur of a deposed king in a Shakespeare play, waiting without fear for death.
"The Judas Kiss" may not be a perfectly wrought play but such a moving evocation of the human spirit is so rare that we have to take it where we find it.
Many traits distinguish the Oscar Wilde of ''The Judas Kiss,'' David Hare's dense marble monument of a play, from the more ordinary run of mankind that surrounds him: his epigrammatic articulateness, of course; his sartorial flair; his unbending insistence on his tailor-made philosophy. But as portrayed by the Irish actor and movie star Liam Neeson in the production that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater, what truly sets the author of ''The Importance of Being Earnest'' apart is his height.
Mr. Neeson does indeed bestride the stage like a colossus, and even when seated, which he is for most of the second act, conveys an impression of towering above all others. Though he talks and talks, one also tends to think of him bizarrely as the strong, silent type, like those self-effacing, stoical heroes played by Gary Cooper. When this Wilde stoops in anguish, his powerful frame tremulous with sobs, to cling to a friend, it's a visual shock, as if some essential law of physics had been violated.
The real Oscar Wilde was also tall and, according to most accounts from his contemporaries, a broad-shouldered fellow with a brawny voice, bearing little resemblance to the popular vision of him as a soft, doughy cream puff. This no doubt enhanced the flamboyant figure he cut in drawing rooms in his heyday.
But the Wilde of Mr. Neeson doesn't seem to want to command attention. He's a gentle giant of a creature, who looks down on the rest of the world from a sad and isolated crag. His height is a rebuking metaphor, and it's accented by Richard Eyre's staging of the production, from the Almeida Theater Company of London: Wilde, in Mr. Hare's play, is morally head and shoulders above everyone else.
The canonization of Oscar Wilde has been a continuing process in the 20th century. The man who briefly ruled the West End theater with his glittering, rarefied comedies and then spectacularly fell from grace because of his homosexuality was inevitably claimed as a figurehead for gay liberation from its earliest days. As ''The Judas Kiss,'' which portrays Wilde on the eve of his imprisonment and in the early days of his subsequent exile, makes clear, this appropriation is somewhat misguided. Wilde always publicly denied his sexuality.
Mr. Hare shifts the heroic focus, emphasizing Wilde less as a martyr of sexual persuasion than as a martyr of love, with some pointed references to the English hatred for the Irish thrown in for seasoning. That the object of Wilde's love, the egoistical young Lord Alfred Douglas (Tom Hollander), is so clearly unworthy of it only makes the sacrifice more noble. This transcendent passion gives Mr. Hare's Wilde an almost Christlike purity that places him beyond the taint of petty daily existence and the judgment of a vicious society. It also makes him, in theatrical terms, a bit of a snooze.
The anomalous persistence of virtue in a largely corrupt world has been a consistent theme in the work of Mr. Hare, a playwright whose polemical fire and eloquence usually avoid soapbox simplicity. In such works as ''The Secret Rapture,'' ''A Map of the World'' and the emotionally luminous ''Skylight,'' which was presented to splendid advantage on Broadway last season (also under Mr. Eyre's direction), Mr. Hare created characters whose idealism made them freaks.
Each of these figures, however, was drawn into electrifying collisions with others. The Wilde of ''The Judas Kiss,'' which Mr. Hare says is the final work in a trilogy on love that also includes ''Skylight'' and the recent London hit ''Amy's View,'' is unmoving in his passivity. And the play, which received very mixed reviews when it was presented in London earlier this year, is finally revealed to be empty of any energizing conflict.
When in the first act the playwright is begged by his friend Robert Ross (Peter Capaldi) to flee England before his imminent arrest, Wilde muses: ''I always had a low opinion of what is called action. Action is something my mother brought me up to distrust.'' The lines are good, fine instances of Mr. Hare's ability to capture the distinctive, shapely tone of Wilde's familiar speech. But they also highlight the play's inherent problem: how to milk drama from a passive fatalist.
It's not an impossible task. Much of the same material is covered with diverting elan in Moises Kaufman's Off Broadway triumph ''Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.'' But Mr. Hare and Mr. Eyre keep things at a low, contemplative simmer that never reaches a boil. And the relationship intended to provide the play with its defining arc of sacrifice and betrayal, that of Wilde with Lord Alfred, known as Bosie, is never on any level convincing.
The work's first act is set in a room in the Cadogan Hotel (designed with ravishing period lushness by Bob Crowley) in London in 1895. The second act finds a ravaged Wilde, after his time in prison, near poverty in a villa near Naples that he shares with his beloved but increasingly restless Bosie.
It isn't just knowledge of history that keeps both acts suspense-free. Oscar and Bosie have both been established as such fixed poles of character there's no doubting how either will behave. How then to generate excitement? Mr. Eyre doesn't solve the problem, despite the inclusion of two explicitly erotic scenes featuring full frontal nudity, presumably meant to remind us of the natural, undeniable impulses beneath an artificial environment.
But the burden of stimulating interest rests, of course, on Mr. Hollander and Mr. Neeson. Lord Alfred was a man of lissome, androgynous beauty and, though a narcissistic tantrum thrower, charming when he wanted to be. Mr. Hollander, a good but ridiculously miscast actor, shows no evidence of either trait. He's a lip-biting, superficial shrew who seems to exist only to make Oscar miserable and presents rather too strong a case for the blindness of love. The vulpine Mr. Capali, as the anxious, affectionate and laceratingly conflicted Ross, offers a much more effective counterpoint to the obdurately self-contained Wilde.
As for Mr. Neeson, best known to Americans for his stalwart, brooding presence in films like ''Schindler's List,'' it is at first a relief to see a Wilde who isn't all fancy flourishes and arch drollery, attributes that the actor can evoke but with winning subtlety. Similarly, the bitterness of Wilde in exile is mostly rendered as a soft undercurrent. But while Mr. Neeson has been given lines of poetic beauty and pithy wit, his Wilde is too steadfast and noble to ever be really entertaining. He brings to mind Sydney Carton on the scaffold or the brave, dutiful captain who goes down with the ship.
Mind you, this is not out of keeping with the tone of Mr. Hare's play. It does, after all, feature a moment in which a hotel servant refuses a large tip from Wilde, saying the playwright has already given him kindness and adding that while he has seen all types of people in his job, ''we see very few gentlemen.'' Indeed. There are moments when ''The Judas Kiss'' seems like a more scholarly restating of the syrupy kicker of ''Starry, Starry Night,'' Don McLean's pop song about Vincent Van Gogh: ''I could have told you, Vincent, the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.''
One of the season's most intriguing pieces of casting -- Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde -- turns out to be the most acutely disappointing element of David Hare's "The Judas Kiss," the latest manifestation of the current cultural fascination with the persecuted playwright, a trend that is turning Oscar and Bosie into the Charles and Diana of literary history. With their doomed love and its consequences providing endless fodder for media manipulation, can a two-hour A&E "Biography" special be far behind?
In interviews following the play's mixed reception in London, Hare has made clear his intention to use the Bosie-Oscar relationship as a prism through which to examine the phenomenon of "sacrificial love." And, indeed, in Wilde's almost lifelong devotion to the man who was inarguably the instigator of his disgrace, there's a strange and sad nobility that bears examining.
But Neeson's performance works against this primary tenet of Hare's play: Where "The Judas Kiss" needs a radiantly loving Wilde at its center, a man rich in feeling who loves not wisely but too well, Neeson provides only dryness and detachment, witty phrasing and diffident bonhomie. The fault is not entirely his; Hare's portrait of Wilde is perhaps too studiously unsentimental. In the end, such is the imbalance in the play's emotional texture that Bosie's devotion to Oscar -- limited, self-interested and immature though it is clearly shown to be -- is more palpably felt than Oscar's more profound affection for Bosie. The play's point on paper is thus undermined on the stage.
The first act of "The Judas Kiss" takes place in London's Cadogan Hotel, immediately following the dismissal of Wilde's libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie (Tom Hollander). Queensberry had, as surely most New York theatergoers now know, accused Wilde publicly of being a "sodomite." With the government expected to bring a case of "gross indecency" against Wilde imminently, Wilde's young friend and former lover Robbie Ross (a sharp Peter Capaldi) pleads with Bosie to join him in urging Oscar to flee to the Continent. But Bosie won't oblige; he wants Oscar to stay and fight, and uses the allure of his presence to press his point.
If any playwright can turn an hour of indecision into compelling theater, it's Hare, whose "Skylight" transformed a similarly unresolved question of allegiance into an evening of dramatic electricity. And Hollander's Bosie, who looks appropriately and amusingly like a debauched cherub, spars with Capaldi's Ross with entertaining, barely concealed animosity. (Insisting later on his own martyrdom -- "There are two people who have suffered here!" -- the very fine and funny Hollander sounds uncannily like Jennifer Saunders' self-obsessed Edina in "Absolutely Fabulous.")
Hare has fashioned his Wilde as a man blithely resigned to his fate at the hands of English hypocrisy and xenophobia. The problem is, in Neeson's performance, Wilde seems indifferent not just to his fate, but to everyone around him. Neeson's moments of affectionate regard for the Cadogan servants ring hollow when they should be emblematic of his immense generosity of spirit. And his fondness for Bosie seems mild and avuncular, not undying and passionate. Ultimately Wilde's stasis can't help but drain the first act of urgency; if he remains unmoved, why shouldn't we?
The play's superior second act takes up Bosie and Oscar's story more than two years later, in Italy, where the disgraced Wilde has fled with Bosie following two years of hard labor that broke both his health and his spirit. (During intermission, audiences should be handed an abridged version of "De Profundis," the magnificent piece of epistolary literature that Wilde wrote while in Reading Gaol, in which he repudiated Bosie and ended their friendship. Knowledge of its contents adds immense poignancy to their reconciliation.)
Bob Crowley's second-act set works strange wonders, as his work so often does, with its vast whiteness quietly bespeaking the aridity of Wilde's later life. While Bosie dallies with an Italian boy with the unlikely name of Galileo, Wilde receives a final visit from Robbie, who begs him to forsake Bosie, and thus regain his wife's approbation -- and her meager financial support. But Wilde stands by his man: "A patriot put in prison for loving his country goes on loving his country. A poet in prison for loving boys loves boys."
But here again, Neeson's performance combines with Hare's exactingly unsentimental portrait of Wilde to drain the play of all emotional weight. Hare has said that he admires Wilde for his refusal to play the victim, and his intention seems also to have been to avoid portraying Wilde as a figure of pathos, in thrall to a young man's beauty; but the alternative is worse: Oscar comes across in the second act as a man of spite, returned to Bosie's side not out of love and need but to annoy those who demanded he forsake him. And he greets Bosie's final betrayal with an equanimity that's deflating.
Only an actor with an extraordinary ability to convey unspoken feeling could triumph in this role. In his wish to avoid a tragically romantic conception of Wilde, Hare has scattered Oscar's moments of emotion among a few stage directions. Although Neeson speaks Hare's always shapely dialogue with intelligence and relish, he conveys no heart in the role, a problem the always astute director Richard Eyre is at a loss to correct. The man of feeling simply isn't there.
"The performance of the actor will not determine the action," Hare's Wilde says by way of excusing his submission to fate, but Neeson's valiant but ineffectual performance proves the contrary: It does determine the action here, and the result is a negation of the playwright's intention.