Time has not been overly kind to Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul. The 1998 play may only be 16 years old, but it feels like it's from another century. Which, of course, it is. But a play set in 1995 in which characters are enamored of miraculous new innovations like e-mail, Internet chat rooms and America Online—and when the idea of major motion pictures being leery of featuring prominent gay characters is writ in stone—seems quaint at best.
While technology and the battle over gay rights have lapped Lucas' plays a few times since, the themes he addresses are as universal and timeless as the ancient Greeks he quite consciously cribs from. Revenge. Hubris. The tragedy that befalls those who attempt to avoid their purpose, or fate, by swearing fealty to a god far removed from their insignificant mortal dreams and desires.
The god in The Dying Gaul is money: more pointedly, the obscene amount of money that primes the pump of Hollywood. Robert (Jeffrey Fargo) is apparently a very talented playwright (apparently because the script he's written, called The Dying Gaul, which focuses on the impact a statue in a European museum has on two gay men, one of whom has AIDS, sounds mediocre at best). Robert's recently deceased lover—who was also his agent—sent the script to a hotshot film producer as one of his last acts.
The Dying Gaul at Theatre Out, 402 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 220-7069; www.theatreout.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. $20.
Said producer Jeffrey (Chris Carver) is in love with the script, offering Robert a cool $1 million for the rights to produce it, as long as he changes a few things . . . like stripping the gay out of it. Robert, still in the throes of grief, reluctantly agrees. After all, as he says in one of the many lines in this play that ring as true as a lump of lead falling to Earth, "You have no idea what a million dollars could do for me!"
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Jeffrey also happens to be bi, which brings in the X factor of this play: his wife, Elaine (Lori Kelley). She's aware of his down-low excursions; as long as they don't affect their relationship—and their lavish lifestyle, of course—she's okay with it. But Elaine is the most problematic part of this story; it's her fascination with Robert that greases the dramatic engine of Lucas' play. And the way she figures out how to peek into his inner psyche—with the help of that newfangled interwebz thing and some rather personal documents she purloins from the office of Robert's shrink, Foss (Michael Treat Latsch)—is as ingenious and cruel as it is laughably ridiculous. It's ridiculous on two fronts. One, we're never quite sure why Elaine is so obsessed with Robert. Two, and even more difficult to understand, is how this woman, a trophy wife at best, orchestrates a Watergate-like caper without getting caught.
Much like David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, Hollywood is unveiled as a corrupt, hypocritical nest of vipers and predators. But the intensity of Lucas' gay revenge fantasy is undermined by his weak script—at times it soars for the poetic grandeur of Greek tragedy, at others it's a flaccid exposé of the repressed sexuality of high-powered Hollywood executives—and by characters who seem to possess multiple layers, but who still come off as thinly rendered.
David Carnevale's production is clean and crisp, focusing on the words instead of technical bells and whistles. The four-person cast proves a solid ensemble. But the production is too nice. The characters are believable in a likable way, but they don't possess enough edge to justify the ruin the play ends in. Jeffrey isn't predatory enough. Robert, while obviously tortured, lacks the intensity that makes him such a coveted pawn in this game of chess. And Elaine? Again, why she even thinks of pulling off such an elaborate heist, let alone how she's capable of doing it, is belied by just how ineffectual every other aspect of her character seems to be.
This play, which was turned into a 2006 film, feels like it was rushed by its quite talented writer (who also penned Prelude to a Kiss and other fine works). The ham-fisted climax would work if the plot, up to that point, possessed more gravitas. To watch Robert's unraveling and desperate attempt to gain some closure is interesting, but the events never elevate this play to anything greater than it is, more soft-boiled gay Greek soap opera than powerful, cathartic Greek tragedy.