Monday, February 21, 2011

"My Scandalous Life" - An intimate, if not always telling, portrait of a cipher

Review by Judd Hollander
Photo by Carol Rosegg

How often is a person defined by a single situation? Take the case of one Lord Alfred Douglas (Des Keogh), known as Bosie to his friends. A poet who, more than 40 years after being involved in an affair with Oscar Wilde, (the story is set in 1944 England), finds himself still mainly known for that one period in his life. "It’s all anyone seems to want to talk about," he mutters at the beginning of Thomas Kilroy's My Scandalous Life, which looks at what has become of Bosie after the Wilde days.

On this particular night, when his long-estranged wife Olive is dying upstairs and the sounds of war can be heard overhead, Bosie looks back on his long and litigious history both as plaintiff and defendant in various libel trials, trying to state his case and set the record(s) straight. No matter how hard he tries to steer the conversation elsewhere, however, Wilde’s name keeps coming up, along with Bosie’s own failings, even though he refuses to admit them. Bosie also discusses his marriage and where that went wrong, as well as his former predilection to homosexuality (He’s remained chaste for over 30 years). He also talks about what happened to his son, who was committed to an asylum at age 25.

Bosie, as brilliantly portrayed by Keogh, is a study in contradictions. He despises his wife’s Irish maid Eileen (Fiana Toibin), feeling she acts too much at ease with him for a servant, yet relies on her more and more as time goes on. He is also a proud and aristocratic man, but at the same time, a weakling and a coward. He wants to be a good father to his son, but is unable to make the effort needed to do so. Keogh does a good job at showing both the humility and complexity of Bosie, a man from a fading, bygone era, who is adrift in a changing world.

Not a comedy in any sense of the word, Keogh and Kilroy do manage to toss in various flourishes of humor along the way, giving Bosie a sort of old reprobate status at times. There’s also a terrible loneliness about this man who continually waits for people to visit him, people who will never come and who probably regard him as a sort of embarrassment (there’s one moment, towards the end of act two where Boise realizes the truth about himself and is crushed by what he sees). In Keogh’s hands Bosie is a rather intriguing individual with a lot of stories to tell, though perhaps too colored with his own perceptions for any of what he says to fully ring true.

Toibin is fine as Eileen, a caring women often running around in tears, yet very devoted to her dying mistress. One has the feeling it won’t be long before she also becomes Bosie’s confidante, something he desperately needs. At least before things get too rough, and he reverts to the master-servant relationship to hide behind, along with continually quoting the different poetry he has written over the years.

There are certainly possibilities here, but unfortunately what’s lacking is enough information to make the play really take hold. Bosie as a character is nicely defined, but there are numerous references to historical incidents, such as various libel suits, that could have been explored further. Bosie talks as if everyone knows what’s going on, a dangerous assumption by the playwright, even if one has the program notes (which are incomplete) to follow along with. It would have been nice to know, for example, how Bosie became bankrupt and how well his poetry was publicly and critically received.

Direction by John Going works nicely, with Charlie Corcoran's set filling the venue's downstairs space very well. Costumes by David Toser are fine, and the lighting by Michael O'Connor is good. The sound effects by Zachary Williamson are quite effective.

My Scandalous Life, while not perfect, shines an intriguing light on a sort of overlooked player in theatrical and literary history. (Even in the close of this review, Douglas is still linked with Wilde. Bosie would have probably hated that.)

My Scandalous Life
By Thomas Kilroy
Directed by John Going
Set Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Michael O'Connor
Sound Design: Zachary Williamson
Production Stage Manager: Michael Palmer

With: Des Keogh (Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas), Eileen (Fiana Toibin)

Irish Repertory Theatre
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (downstairs space)
132 West 22nd Street

Tickets: 212-727-2737 or

Running Time: 2 Hours

Closes: March 6, 2011

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