by Craig Lucas
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Intiman Theatre
Seattle, Washington
July 20-August 18, 2001

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

Stories of how Hollywood corrupts the artistic temperament with its toxic brew of power, money and glamour are hardly new. Playwright Craig Lucas is interested in something more substantial and more interesting than that hackneyed formulation. In "The Dying Gaul" he uses a deceptively simple story of one writer's unhappy experience of L.A.-style compromise to examine essential questions of self.

It is an exploration of how identity, persona, authenticity, social role-playing, ambition, desire and repression combine to shape and distort the individual. For all its amusement, and Lucas is a very clever and entertaining writer, this is deadly serious material, and the consequence of these issues is never simplified nor taken lightly. At times the story may seem unlikely, but there is always something of the surreal about Los Angeles movie making. It's the authenticity of the mourning, combined with the desperation of the search for love, that overcomes problems of plausibility.

Intiman, under the confident direction of Bartlett Sher, gives the play an elegant and intimate production. It is especially strong exploring the elements of grief, loss and guilt, both between people and within the individual. It is less successful in making us feel the loss of an artistic soul.

As Robert, the young writer, Jay Goede turns in an affecting but uneven performance. In the opening scene he strikes a Faustian bargain to re-write a script in ways which demean both his original vision and the dead lover for whom it was written. These are the first steps down a terrible path, and we should have been intensely aware of the danger, and above all, the stakes involved. The scene seemed strangely flat to me, and I think it was because Mr. Goede was unable to convince me that this piece of art truly belonged to him.

What was clear in the opening scene was the volatility, complexity, arrogance and duplicity of Jeffrey, the studio executive who "loves" this script. Laurence Ballard is quite marvelous in the part. He gives this despicable character such panache that we're more astonished than appalled. And as the play emerges, we come to realize that no one has paid more, and paid it more willingly, than this psychologically bankrupt mogul.

Completing the play's central triangle, Myra Platt makes being Jeffrey's wife seem as much a destiny as a marriage. Ms. Platt gives us precisely the innocent curiosity needed to generate fatal discoveries. In addition, she has a fascinating blend of ethical vacuity and intensely personal need. A fourth character, the therapist Foss, never really came to life for me. David Pichette seems pale and insubstantial, and without the passion or the investment of the others.

The conflicts in this play cover a spectrum of sexual orientation, from the heterosexual wife to the gay playwright to the bisexual producer, with the analyst's oddly asexual intellect in between. What is gratifying is that orientation is never an issue, and the difficulties of relationship, of human connection, remain the same regardless of the genders involved.

"The Dying Gaul" makes a theatrical statement about our isolation and impersonal interactions through the use of extended "conversations" in an on-line chat room. The device, which combines the freedom of purely invented personae, the intimacy and imaginary license of complete anonymity, and the dehumanization of technology, creates a new medium for the oldest manner of interpersonal communication - the love letter. The clever ways in which Lucas places that disembodied communication within the real world creates a variety of contexts. Beyond that, the characters find a freedom to explore real intimacy in a way that is both ironic and poignant. Remarkably, it is the means to the play's most beautiful and lyric communications.

That is quite different than the tone and language of the play's graphic sexual dialogue. What is striking about the way people discuss sex in this play when they are face to face, as opposed to on-line, is that in the real world the words have no charm, no romance, no poetry. Fuck means nothing else and says nothing else, and the heart is thus rendered inarticulate and hopeless. Only when there is a physical remove can dreams and needs and fears and hungers find grace.

The scenic design by Andrew Jackness is imaginative and lovely. A narrow path of doors through which characters pass in only one direction, bordered on both sides by a neat, symmetrical garden of dangerously attractive flowers. A real swimming pool and transparent furniture adequately imagined the L.A. style. Costumes never had any real importance. These characters were already draped in varied enough facades.

"The Dying Gaul" is that rare contemporary drama which takes on very large themes, draws complex and disquieting characters, and delivers us to a kind of grandeur. This is a committed and authentic production. Unlike the play's hapless writer, Craig Lucas knows what he is unwilling to compromise, and so speaks exactly what he has to say. It's worth hearing.

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