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Theatre Review (LA): The Dying Gaul by Craig Lucas at The Elephant Theatre

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The Dying Gaul was written in 1998 by acclaimed playwright Craig Lucas shortly after the death of his lover, Norman Rene, who had directed Lucas’s elegy to AIDS victims, Longtime Companion. As such, the play is seething with conflicting emotions of regret, compassion, hatred, desperation, loneliness, and rudderless sexuality.

Throw into the mix Lucas’s portrayal of an immoral Hollywood, a contemptuous look at the straight world’s fascination with the gay lifestyle and the AIDS plague, and a depiction of psychology and Buddhism as ineffectual answers to life’s problem, and you are left with a very disquieting evening in the theatre. The play is finally getting its Los Angeles premiere at the Elephant Theatre in Hollywood, directed by taward-winning director Jon Lawrence Rivera.

The story is about a screenwriter, Robert (Patrick Hancock), who has written a very personal script, The Dying Gaul, about the death of his lover from AIDS-related tuberculosis. A slick movie executive, Jeffrey (Ken Arquelio), wants to make a movie from the script and is willing to pay a million dollars if Robert will change the couple in the story to heterosexual. “America hates gays – no one goes to the movies to have a bad time or to learn anything,” says Jeffrey. Because he needs the money, Robert agrees, and they hug. Then Jeffrey says, “I’m a little turned on, are you?” Robert is lonely and likes Jeffrey’s dominating and ruthless manner.

Trouble begins when Jeffrey introduces Robert to his wife (Mary-Ellen Loukas), who knows her husband is bisexual and suspects the affair. She steals a file from Robert’s psychiatrist (Nick Salamone) and secretly injects herself, through a sexual chat room, into their relationship in order to understand male-to-male sexual love. The consequences are tragic for all concerned and the wife ends up dead.

The plot devices of how she dies and of Robert’s gullibility to the supernatural are contrived, but that doesn’t mean the play doesn’t totally engross you in its twists and turns. The actors are all very good. Arquelio is suitably sleazy, Hancock appropriately distraught, and Loukas on the money as the desperate, clueless wife who puts her nose where it shouldn’t be and gets burned in the process.

None of the characters is very likable, and the whole thing left me fascinated but queasy. I wish there had been more real sexual energy between the participants because that would have heightened the whole experience. Rivera does his usual professional job and keeps things cracking.

The title of the play refers to a famous, often reproduced statue of a naked Gaul dying of a wound. The statue, created by an enemy, was made to honor the dead victim.

The Dying Gaul is playing at The Elephant Theatre until April 19.

About Robert Machray