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Theatre in Review: OSCAR at The Crown (3 Dollar Bill)

Kerri George, Mark Mauriello. Photo: Santiago Felipe.

What is it with playwrights and the apocalyptic future? Isn't the apocalyptic present difficult enough? Whatever the reason, the world and his brother seem intent on dragging us into some terrible day after tomorrow when the economy is in the tank, the environment is beyond repair, and freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. The latest example is OSCAR at The Crown. The title might suggest to you that Oscar Wilde is the evening's subject -- and you would be right. But then there's the author's note: "All of the characters have been exiled from a future authoritarian imagining of the United States of America. They were stripped of their possessions and dumped miles outside the nation's border walls in the desert wasteland that has resulted from global climate catastrophe. They were left for dead. They found The Crown. They survived."

The Crown is a nightspot into which wanders a desperate young woman named Constance. From the way she looks -- and the sinister light cue that frames her entrances -- things out there are pretty bad. The regulars belong to a cult devoted to the old TV series The O.C. -- especially the character of the scandal-plagued matron Julie Cooper -- and the Real Housewives franchise. Somehow, in their eyes, these popular phenomena, along with the invention of Twitter, represented a profound societal shift "ushering forth a new world where each of us could script and produce our own identities into posts, tweets, and pictures for public and personal consumption." Or, as one of the songs puts it, "Self-worship was corrupted and destroyed all humankind/And the gods that they created lost their minds." As they explain, "They may have taken our freedom and our individuality and weaponized them against us, but here: we've created a place where we can enjoy what we want to enjoy: Reality television. Twitter. The 1977 Fleetwood Mac album Rumors."

It was around this time that two questions occurred to me: (1) Has someone slipped ecstasy into my tonic water?; (2) Is the sound system really so hit-or-miss that I am getting only every third word? Alas, the latter was true; without a copy of the script, I couldn't be writing this, having spent most of the evening in a state of bewilderment. (And I even watched an entire season of The O.C.!) Anyway, the main activity at The Crown involves reliving the life of Oscar Wilde -- "The original Julie Cooper! The queer Orpheus himself!" -- focusing on his rise and fall, thanks to his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie. Perhaps since Constance, who has just wandered in, is the namesake of Mrs. Wilde, she is assigned that role.

Only the clinically insane would expect OSCAR at The Crown to have anything to say about Wilde, not while Bosie is belting, "Your lips are my Pluto/Like forbidden fruit oh/And I just wanna take a bite," or when Oscar and Bosie proudly insist, "And we'll dance dance dance/Til the universe crashes down/Oh woah/Cuz the music won't stop/Til your heart caves in/And the music won't stop/Love will always win." Clearly, what its creators have in mind is a kind of EDM dance party for LGBTQ millennials and their allies. And it is certainly true that Andrew Barret Cox has composed the kind of melodies designed to get audiences moving; as for his lyrics -- well, you can't make them out, anyway. Still, I confess to being shocked at the waves of laughter greeting such aged-in-aspic Wildean epigrams as "Nothing succeeds like excess." Don't these kids read anymore?

OSCAR at The Crown gets mildly interesting near the end, when the understandably aggrieved Constance points out that Wilde, far from being the patron saint of individual liberty, abandoned her and her sons, sexually abused young men for money, and generally behaved like a selfish rotter. But this is an essentially empty-headed evening, dedicated to the debatable notion that partying down is a subversive political act. As one of the would-be rebels says, "I tried to overthrow the government at a Carly Rae Jepsen concert." (This the funniest line in the show.) Mark Mauriello is credited with creating the piece, which, I suppose, means he wrote the book; he also plays Wilde, and his stage presence outclasses his dramaturgy by several leagues.

In addition, Kerri George and David Merino are enthusiastic as Constance and Bosie, respectively, and everybody else dance-dance-dances with abandon. (Nobody is committed to clearly enunciating the lyrics, however.) Since the action unfolds in the back room of 3 Dollar Bill, a gay bar in Bushwick, it's difficult to know what constitutes Tekla Monson's set design, but the space is filled with screens, affording video designer Lianne Arnold the opportunity to deliver endless loops of episodes of The O.C. along with the Countess Luann de Lesseps in one of her singing attempts. Calvin Anderson's lighting brought back the disco nights of my youth. Mateus Forte is credited with "costume concepts;" in any case, the cast appear to be dressed for a Space Age theme night.

The worst thing you can say about OSCAR at The Crown is that it is harmless; that's also the best thing you can say about it. Perhaps Wilde -- who, after all, said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about" -- wouldn't mind too much. --David Barbour

(13 August 2019)

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