Pittsburgh’s Kinetic Theatre Company has the esteemed privilege of producing the U.S premiere of Donald Steven Olson‘s Oscar & Walt.
Reviewed by Tiffany Raymond
Performance date: 11/4/21
In 1882, the 28-year old Wilde (played by Nick Giedris) visited the 62-year old Whitman (played by Sam Tsoutsouvas) at Whitman’s New Jersey home during Wilde’s U.S. lecture circuit. Olson’s play brings into relief a meeting between these storied literary giants as they sit at opposing ends of their careers.
Nick Giedris as Oscar Wilde and Sam Tsoutsouvas as Walt Whitman in Kinetic Theatre’s Oscar & Walt. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.
The two men lambast the “modern era” as not as progressive as it should be in response to the fact Whitman’s publisher was forced to remove the new edition of his poetry volume, Leaves of Grass, from bookstores or suffer prosecution for obscenity. The lament of the modern world never being modern enough. The contrails of persecution behind great authors still resonate, given recent elections were framed by debates around critical race theory and banning Toni Morrison’s Beloved in schools.
Olson adds his voice to a theatrical tradition of plays that cater to the voyeuristic pleasures of listening in on encounters between famous people. Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile makes us privy to the lively banterings of Einstein and Picasso, and we tune in on Cassius Clay and Malcolm X in Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami. Whether these encounters were real or imagined, the conversations are still the workings of fiction. In the case of Oscar & Walt, both men were fiercely capable with their pens, and their clever comeuppances reflect their prowess on the page. Olson constructs them both as quintessential writers, full of literary bravado wrapped in a delicate ego that requires constant nourishment.
Walt’s sister-in-law Louisa (played by Lisa Ann Goldsmith) provides the play’s third voice. Olson wants her to be a circumscribed woman ahead of her time as she asks Wilde about “famous women” he knows. However, she is also upset that Walt insists on meeting Oscar in his messy room instead of her drawing-room. The dichotomy feels forced, although Goldsmith deftly handles the Victorian guardrails on her character.
Before Wilde’s arrival, Louisa adeptly notes Walt took this meeting because he likes “to be flattered” after Walt reads aloud from a newspaper where Wilde is quoted as saying that Whitman is the writer he most wants to meet in America. The men aren’t only foils in age but in education; Whitman was forced to leave school at age 11 to support his family, whereas Wilde was Oxford-educated. Whitman, while proudly self-made, is also self-conscious about his educational lackings.
Olson portrays both men as caricatures of their larger-than-life historical status, a missed opportunity for greater depth. Tsoutsouvas makes a jolly Whitman, a bit Santa Claus-esque with his white beard. In fact, we are introduced to him offstage at the play’s start as he washes up and sings “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
The writing – and Tsoutsouvas – both shine in the heartwrenchingly specific. Tsoutsouvas is memorable as he dredges up his volunteer work as a nurse during the Civil War. His voice quivers under director Andrew Paul as he recounts holding the hands of soldiers, carrying pails of amputated limbs, and being the handwriting in final letter homes. Tsoutsouvas is at his best when he finds those deeper vulnerabilities that undercut the Whitman bravado, revealing that as much as America is a land of opportunity, this young nation is also a carrier of immense pain. His hobbling steps and cane make that pain manifest.
Costume designer Kimberly Brown capitalizes on flamboyant fun with Wilde’s gold-buttoned knee-breeches topped with a white shirt and navy blazer trimmed with gold braiding and a white rose corsage affixed to the lapel. Director Andrew Paul has Giedris woundedly flick a wrist as he notes his “masculinity is called into question” after Whitman comments on Oscar’s “mighty fancy duds.” Wilde delicately circles Whitman’s homosexual elements in his American peer’s writing, cautiously eager to determine if they are the stuff of imagination or based on experience. Given Wilde’s well-known imprisonment for homosexuality, this ringfencing interferes with a deeper view of Wilde.
Oscar & Walt fails to crack the facades of these two literary legends. As much as Wilde dances around Whitman, Olson dances around a deeper exploration of these two poets.
Note: This review was written based on the first preview show on November 4th. Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of Oscar & Walt plays through November 20th at City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Theatre. To buy tickets to this U.S. premiere, please visit Kinetic Theatre Company.