Craig Lucas's The Dying Gaul is a strange and unruly script. As directed by Rob Bundy at Stages Repertory Theatre, the show is rich in spots, with moments when the original drama is so provocative and wildly intelligent that it inspires a sort of face-tingling, edge-of-your-seat rapture that is rare in theater. But the script feels unfinished. For Lucas, who wrote Prelude to a Kiss and Longtime Companion, has weighed down his project with long, unnecessary stretches of narration and a melodramatic ending that stomps the life out of his wonderfully inventive story.
This modern-day morality tale begins with Robert (Jonathan McVay), who has written a film entitled The Dying Gaul. It's an homage to his dead lover, Malcolm. Somehow it ends up in the hands of a big wheel Hollywood producer. Impeccably tailored and full of seductive praise, producer Jeffrey (Peter Kybart) offers Robert the moon for his movie. There's a catch, though: Robert has to agree to change his gay love story into a straight one. "Most Americans hate gay people," states Jeffrey, with all the cool, cutting directness of a butcher knife. No, argues Robert, that would dishonor Malcolm's memory.
Then Jeffrey plops a cool million on the table. And Robert learns that virtually every star, from Tom Cruise to Michelle Pfeiffer, wants to be in his oddly titled flick. The stakes are raised, and Robert wrings his hands in moral consternation.
The temptation is so complete that Jeffrey comes right out and calls himself the devil, chuckling. After some bickering, poor, spineless, though genuinely grieving, Robert sells his love story and his soul and begins his slow Faustian spin down into the bowels of Hollywood Hell.
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This would be a familiar, even predictable, tale were it not for the bewitching presence of Kybart. His tall, balding and wonderfully imposing Jeffrey fills up the stage with an unbending will, one articulated with mesmerizing snakelike charm. Even his voice hisses with serpentine insidiousness. In the end he slithers right next to Robert. Wrapping his arms around the writer, he reveals that even though he's married with two sons at home, he likes men on the side. Smiling into Robert's stunned face he simply murmurs, "You can do whatever you like. Just don't call it what it is."
The conflict gets ratcheted up when Jeffrey takes Robert home to meet his wife. Elaine (Connie Cooper), as explained by her husband, is very intelligent and very unfulfilled and "so prescient." We discover that she has just found her way on-line and into some chat rooms, something Robert appears to know a good deal about. He tells her about one of his favorite rooms, a naughty pickup place for men.
Lucas employs these weak and synthetic bits of party chatter only to get his characters where he wants them: on-line and talking to each other. Even worse, after the men leave and Elaine is left onstage alone with her computer, she begins to narrate everything she thinks and everything she is about to do. Cooper does remarkably well with this irritating device.
But it's easy to forgive Lucas the laziness of these scenes once we get to the heart of his play, which does indeed happen on-line. Hiding behind a chat-room persona, Elaine finds Robert in cyberspace and confirms the affair she suspects is going on between him and her husband. What she does with this information is chilling.
Robert, of course, has no idea who is on the other side of his screen. Out of grief and loneliness, he falls deep into Elaine's web. There's a good deal of sweet sadness in this script. Robert is in mourning, but he can't express his grief until he gets on-line. And somehow, though they are stuck in chairs, sitting before computers and pounding away at keyboards, both McVay and Cooper manage to plumb the depths of their characters' grief and find in this awkward script something stunning to say about loss and power in our modern and complicated world.
Robert Leeds is convincing as the Buddhist therapist who does as much damage as he does good. And Kirk Markley's set of rice-paper scrims and blond wood platforms, along with David Gipson's lovely lighting full of dark shadows, develop Lucas's ideas about power and our ability to know ourselves.
Though the ending of this play should be hacked off and the plot points are dropped with all the subtlety of an anvil, The Dying Gaul has a powerful and inventive heart.
The Dying Gaul runs through November 7 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)527-0220. $26-$37.
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