Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
The Dying Gaul
By Elyse Sommer
Instead of logging on to the Internet and reading the latest theater news and reviews at CurtainUp, two of four main players in Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul spin a complicated emotional web in an America On Line chat room. The cybersurrealism of the chat room world adds a new wrinkle to the much dramatized Faustian bargains struck by writers lured out of their dingy walkups by Hollywood moguls.
The computer connection didn't add much to Lucas' last play, God's Heart. Here, however, the on line scenes between Robert, a writer (Tim Hopper) and Elaine, (Linda Emond) the wife of million dollar check wielding Hollywood producer, Jeffrey (Tony Goldwyn), provide some of the more moving moments propelling this emotionally intense story towards its dark and cynical conclusion.
According to Robert Internet chat rooms are "like life after death" and filled with "disembodied souls. " For the playwright they provide an opportunity to contrast the efficacy (or lack of it) of unconventional emotional therapy and conventional therapy -- the office of Robert's psychiatrist (Robert Emmet Lunney).
Besides the psychiatrist, there are several other never seen characters. Most important for Robert, there's Malcolm, his long-term lover and agent whose death weighs as heavily on his conscience as his heart; also a son from a brief heterosexual marriage for whom he'd like to provide better than he has in the past. Equally important for Jeffrey and Elaine are the children they love and need to maintain their equilibrium as a caring and committed family unit; not an easy matter since Jeffrey prefers men and Elaine desperately seeks "a way in" to this other part of his life in order to cope with it.
So that's the story in a nutshell. The corrupt world of Hollywood reeling an emotionally fragile writer into its grasping arms. (Lucas' Long Term Companion about the effect of AIDS on a group of gay men took a long time getting funded by producers who shared Jeffrey's belief that "nobody goes to the movies to have a bad time, to learn anything."). To underscore the seduction, Jeffrey and Robert become sexually involved. The twist to that seduction is that the seducer (Jeffrey) feels more than just sexual attraction while the gentle Robert finds himself excited by Jeffrey's lack of scruples and freely expressed anger.
That brings us to Elaine. She knows what sort of "mauling" Robert's script will undergo before reaching one of the shopping mall's multiplex screens. She is quite sincere when she tells Jeffrey that he should go easy and settle for a movie that doesn't make two hundred million dollars. But she's also aware that Robert's entry into her world has made her, not him, the outsider. Thus it is more self-interest than altruism that prompts her to steal Robert's file from the office of his Buddhist believing psychiatrist and tracks him to the "Park Bench" chat room. In the persona of Archangel ( the dead Malcolm) she tries to help him to get in touch with the "goodness waiting to stir up a song"" inside him." Robert is now caught between the old devil (Hollywood) and the cyber devil disguised as an angel.
With the excellent Mark Brokaw to direct, Lucas' penchant for travelling from real to surreal and giving his characters monologues within a play are integrated into a fast-paced two hours. The Internet scenes shift without a glitch from amusing to scary. Allen Moyer's sets are spare enough to give the real world Hollywood scenes the same "disembodied" aura of those of the cyber world. David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design, as always, perfectly set the mood for each scene.
Effective as the technological elements are, some of Robert and Elaine's keyboard interaction tends to get a bit static, largely because the audience is too all-knowing. The on-line interchanges work most effectively when things turn ominous and the audience loses this sense of knowing more than the characters.
All four cast member do well by the play's characters. Tony Goldwyn who stepped in for the injured Cotter Smith on very short notice is to be particularly commended for settling smoothly and effectively into the role of Jeffrey. Linda Emond couldn't be better as Elaine. She's elegant, warm and guarded. When her laptop metaphorically turns into a missile transmitting painful information, she clings to the instrument administering the pain with all the desperation of a passenger clinging to the railing of a sinking ship. She convincingly metamorphoses from cool compromiser to raging cauldron. Tim Hopper is a fine sensitive actor but even he can't overcome The Dying Gaul's fatal flaw: Without giving away the ending of what is as much a mystery as anything else, I will say that when the climax comes it is one that's hard to swallow and even harder to make you hold on to any sympathy you've invested in the main player.
Craig Lucas is a gifted and versatile writer with a fine ear for language. Flawed as it is, this new play holds your interest even though you may, like me, feel let down by its manufactured plot and out of character ending. Due to the delayed press opening, you have just two weeks beyond this posting to check it out for yourself..
In case you're curious about the title, which is also the title of Robert's play within the play, it alludes to the striking Greek statue of a vanquished soldier found at Pergamum. As Robert explains to Jeffrey he sees it as having special meaning to the many gay men who have died in their youth. By asking him to excise gay characters from his play to please the public taste for entertainment without enlightenment, Jeffrey is of course, asking the writer to vanquish himself -- as all who compromise their core beliefs vanquish themselves.