Vera; Or, the Nihilists
Femme Fatale Theater's all-male company revives Oscar Wilde's first play after a 131-year absence from New York City.
Femme Fatale Theater's current production of Oscar Wilde's Vera; or, The Nihilists at HERE Arts Center is certainly intriguing in theory. Not only is it the play's first New York revival since its 1883 debut at the Union Square Theatre, but, as Wilde's first play and biggest theatrical failing (closing after only one week of performances), Femme Fatale is attempting to redeem the famed comic playwright's political drama nearly a century and a half later. This is not to mention the added allusions to gay-rights issues through the play's all-male company of queer performers. The story is rife with drama even before you take your seat. Unfortunately, that is where the drama ends in this sloppy attempt at theatrical redemption.
Contrary to his famous lighthearted drawing-room plays and subtly subversive comedies, Vera; Or The Nihilists offers an example of Wilde's early dramatic work. Loosely based on the life of Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich, the play follows the tragic star-crossed love story that unfolds between Alexis (Jake Lasser), a pro-democracy heir to the corrupt Russian throne, and Vera (Chris Tyler), a barmaid who is incited to join a terrorist group called The Nihilists to avenge her brother's unjust imprisonment by the Tzar (a booming Harlan J. Alford).
Chris Tyler takes on the title role of Vera, the play's only female character and the crux of the production's self-proclaimed attempt to aim some dramatic gunfire at Russian President Vladimir Putin's oppression of his LGBT populous (a timely effort in this midst of the Sochi Olympics). Directors Stephen Gribbin and Robert Ribar, however, add no nuance to this gender-bending element, leaving it a simple novelty act that, at times, even distracts from the play's underlying political message. Rather than melting into his female character, Tyler creates a shallow caricature that goes little beyond his disheveled wig and ill-fitting backless dress (designed by Macy Rodman), offering no discernible thesis behind this unorthodox all-male cast. Jake Lasser, performing opposite Tyler as Vera's forbidden love interest Alexis, makes an energetic attempt to bring some life to the play's passions (both political and romantic). However, his performance gets stuck in the one-dimensional realm of a noble man in protest against an evil monarch — a monarch who, in this instance, just happens to be his father (though this fact has little bearing on his dramatic choices).
The dragging pace of the play's four acts — despite the company's admirable attempt to cut it to a manageable 75 minutes — explains its poor reception 131 years ago. Its melodramatic, long-winded speeches, though supported by the sharp prose that later earned Wilde his critical and public acclaim, become tedious as the play marches on, particularly with this cast's muddled delivery of his rich wording. The love story between Alexis and Vera is the play's most captivating element, though, unfortunately, the awkward chemistry between Lasser and Tyler only serves to remind us that we are witnessing a theatrical experiment.
Femme Fatale associate artist John C. Hume, who appears to be overseeing the production like the godfather of the theater troupe, stands out among the cast as the only performer to deliver the dialogue with its necessary clarity. He also has the good fortune of serving as the play's primary source of comic relief, spewing a collection of Wilde's famous witty one-liners that sporadically appear like prophecies of his later works. "Experience, the name men give to their mistakes," is one particular epigram that Wilde seems to have taken to heart, laying his first dramatic effort to rest after its inauspicious debut. This is one career move best left unchallenged.