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In Brief: "The Dying Gaul"

Craig Lucas's fine "The Dying Gaul" deserved a longer life.

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I approached The Dying Gaul with unhappy memories of Craig Lucas's other plays but, to my astonishment, found this one tightly constructed -- not just grabbing our attention but also keeping it.

Robert, the semi-autobiographical protagonist, has lost his longtime lover to AIDS and is offering a script based on the relationship to Jeffrey, a film producer, in his Hollywood office. Jeffrey, though married to Elaine and a father, is really bisexual, but has until now satisfied his same-sex needs in fly-by-night encounters with inferiors on the sly. Unbeknown to him, Elaine is not fooled. Falling suddenly and passionately for Robert, he offers him a million for his screenplay, and wants only a small rewrite: turning the central gay relationship into a straight one. Robert is deeply shocked but, with promises of future freedom, grudgingly starts revising.

He also becomes Jeffrey's lover and a frequent visitor at Jeffrey and Elaine's home. The wife, sensing danger of losing her husband, finds Robert in a chat room on the Internet. (Improbable but not impossible, given some strong clues she has.) Robert and Elaine become cyberpals, and Elaine resorts to a cheap trick. Without quite saying so, she implies that she is Robert's dead lover come back in this form to guide and protect. When Robert ascertains that the friend is not his therapist, Foss, playing games, he begins to fall: Who else could know so many intimate things about him?

The play now turns wildly melodramatic, though still less so than Cymbeline, and not without a few shreds of credibility remaining. A good part of its efficacy comes from the staging by Mark Brokaw, probably the best young director around.

Except for the Foss of Robert Emmet Lunney, who hasn't much to work with, the other parts are handsomely done. Tony Goldwyn may make his bisexuality a trifle too obvious as an otherwise spirited Jeffrey, but Linda Emond is paradigmatic as a plain woman unfulfilled in her marriage yet hell-bent to hang in -- until she finds out more than she wants. Tim Hopper is a fine Robert but ought to be as good-looking as Craig Lucas to make Jeffrey's instant infatuation believable.

I am not sure, though, that Jeffrey would use language as crass as "I want to suck you until there's not a drop of juice left," "What is that warm eight-inch dick doing right now?" and more of the like. For the rest, Lucas's dialogue is crisp and effective. Amid Allen Moyer's minimal yet suggestive scenery and Christopher Akerlind's caressing lighting, the lure of Los Angeles permeates the proceedings. The Dying Gaul is a famous late-Roman statue, but I shan't burden you with its relevance here, now that an unjustly carping Times review has caused the dying of the entire show with galling haste.


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