I don’t envy the challenge Kinetic Theatre Company has in marketing the new play Oscar & Walt. At first glance, it’s a rather hard sell, particularly in our current WSYWAT moment. The play consists of ninety minutes of conversation between two White nineteenth-century poets, the elderly Walt Whitman and a young Oscar Wilde, inspired by a real life meeting between the two that took place in early 1882 at Whitman’s residence in Camden, New Jersey. It’s the sort of play in which, on the surface at least, nothing much seems to really happen: Wilde arrives, they talk, they imbibe a bit, they talk some more, they are interrupted repeatedly by Whitman’s sister-in-law Louisa, and then Wilde departs to give a lecture in Philadelphia. I’ll confess it’s the sort of play that – if described to me as I just described it to you – I’d likely put in the mental basket labeled “not my cup of tea.”
And, it turns out, I’d have been wrong.
Playwright Donald Steven Olson’s imagined version of the encounter between the two men is both engaging and enlightening. He begins with the historical fact that Wilde was a fan of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and spins out from that a queer historical version of their meeting that dances around Wilde’s desire to meet the poet who wrote openly and frankly about what Wilde would later refer to as the “love that dare not speak its name.” What Olson gives us, in other words, is a meeting between two men who share a sexual orientation but have decidedly different orientations toward their sexuality. His Wilde – played with delicious circumspection by Nick Giedris – is not yet the confident, arrogant litterateur he will in time become, but rather an insecure and sexually inexperienced young man who hides behind the shield of his Aesthetic sensibility. In contrast, Olson’s Whitman – brought to vivid life by the luxuriantly bearded Sam Tsoutsouvas – is gruff, plainspoken, and bluntly sensual.
Olson presents them as opposites in many other ways, too: Wilde is British, classically educated, a child of privilege, formal in manners, and a rising star, where Whitman is American, self-taught, self-made, casual in affect, and near the end of his career. What they have in common, besides a gift for writing and attraction to other men, is vanity. Their meeting begins inauspiciously, with a kind of pissing contest to establish their bona fides and level of fame. But it gradually morphs into a conversation that provides empathetic insight into what might have made each of these men tick. They share stories about their childhoods and families, divulge personal information, compare favorite poets, gossip about the competition, and talk about the challenges they each face as writers and public figures. Sounds a bit like a first date, right? There’s certainly an undercurrent of flirtatious tension throughout that I suspect is deliberate: after all, the internet offers plenty of speculation that Whitman and Wilde may have done quite a bit more than just talk at their actual meeting (go ahead, search it; I’ll wait).
The Kinetic Theatre ensemble gives the characters depth and complexity. As Louisa – the sister-in-law who takes care of Whitman – Lisa Ann Goldsmith is the epitome of warm practicality while also punctuating the action with moments of comic relief. Tsoutsouvas brings a twinkle-in-the-eye canniness to his portrayal of Whitman, while also providing much of the production’s gravitas and pathos. His poignant recollection of the horrors he witnessed as a Civil War nurse – and his evocation of the PTSD he suffered in its wake – is particularly moving, as is his nostalgia for the energy and vigor of his youth. Giedris has a skittish energy that may be at odds with the historical Wilde’s reputation for loucheness but also feels right for this occasion of a fanboy meeting his literary hero, and it’s intriguing to imagine a version of Wilde who had not yet perfected his camp persona and still had chinks in the armor, whether or not that’s historically true to life.