note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark
Set Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Costume Design by Troy Siegfried
Lighting Design by John Malinowski
Original Music and Sound Design by J. Hagenbuckle
Production Stage Manager Alyson Young
Robert..........John P. Arnold
I have spent the night trying to fashion a lead paragraph about the SpeakEasy Stage production of "The Dying Gaul" I saw last night, and nothing works. I can't just start with "This is the best thing I have seen all year" since not only have I said it three ghoddamned times already since January, but also in order to see "The Dying Gaul" I walked past the theatre where "This Is Our Youth" --- the show I said that about last --- is still up and running. The script here is bigger --- "The Dying Gaul" gets bigger and more surprising turn by ever more surprising turn of its complicated plot --- but I think what surprised me most about it was the intensely physical reactions this ensemble cast had to whatever it was they were hearing. It's not the words they are saying, but the reactions of everyone else to those words that makes this such a surprising theatrical experience.
And, make no mistake, there are no simple characters in this play. Richard Carey, for instance, plays a psychiatrist trying as openly as possible to help a man whose lover died of AIDS, yet the dead man was also one of his patients and, unethical though it is, the doctor gave his lover enough morphine to put him out of his misery and lives not only with his guilt but the possibility of losing his license. And that's the simplest one of the lot.
His patient, played by John P. Arnold, made their story into a movie script (called "The Dying Gaul") in order to give meaning to his lover's life and death --- and takes a million dollars to see it produced, even though it means re-writing his dead lover's character so it can be played by a woman. You can see why he needs a psychiatrist, right?
But Craig Lucas can't let his story rest so simply. Will Lyman plays the smoothly "realistic" producer who explains that no one will pay to see a "weepy" about two homosexuals, "but we want to make 'The Dying Gaul' because it's such a great script." But rather than a mere tempter with a check, this effortlessly powerful player is also a lascivious-lipped bisexual simply never discussing with his wife a growing infatuation with the playwright whose re-writes he oversees.
At her first appearance, Melinda Lopez as that wife and mother of his children seems the least interesting stereotypical home-maker help-meet to a mover and shaker. She became, for me, the first among equals in this magnificent cast. Hers is the line, referring not only to the Hollywood suburban landscape, but to the landscape of money and power as well "The higher you go in these hills, the weirder it gets." She dabbles in the virtual world of Internet chat-rooms where she can be any persona she chooses and can fantasize being any lover's ultimate fulfilment.
And, by the way, if you think two people at opposite sides of a stage typing dialogue that appears as hyper-text must be boring, you must remember that first, they vocalize what they type and second, they react to each feverishly typed line they read. And that brings me back to the prime importance of reactions in this show. Again and again the focus of attention here is on a person suddenly realizing the importance of what has just happened. The image that struck me most forcefully was of Melinda Lopez drawing her right toe back along the floor, as though her entire rigid body was refusing to step into a battery-acid lake of implications from whatever it was she had just heard.
I haven't yet begun to explore the complicated excellence of this play. Craig Lucas writes out of personal experience with Hollywood (He did write the script for "Longtime Companion" after all), and in a sense Eric C. Engel has directed it with the effortless flow of a movie. In fact, one of the odd experiences here is watching an actor in semi-darkness striking props or moving sets after what felt, because of the blocking, like a close-up.
Susan Zeeman Rogers' set is all glass and stainless-steel tasteful modernity, with walls and platforms swivelling into place with an effortless sweep made possible by an invisible running crew consisting of Beth Newhall, Julia Zayas-Melendez, Joy Brooke Fairfield and Sam McKnight under Production Stage Manager Alyson Young's control. John Malinowski's lighting softens and humanizes the harsh surfaces of Rogers' set without ever calling attention away from the action, and J. Hagenbuckle's eerie crashes of sound lend an ominous intensity to the story. Troy Siegfreid's costumes also go a long way to defining the informal comfort of tasteful Californian wealth.
Obviously, everyone who worked on this show, from Paul Daigneault who fought for the rights through Production Manager Jason Diebley and Technical Director Michael Brown and Master Electrician C. Scott Ananian, realizes what a landmark theater experience they have been involved in creating. Craig Lucas' script might have come to life as a movie --- it may still --- but that would distance it in many ways. Watching these real people re-enacting this story live on a stage, however, is an unforgettably moving, many-layered emotional experience.
The one thing that bothers me this morning, though, is next week, when I see the CentaStage world premiere of Melinda Lopez' new play "The Order of Things" will I again have to say it, too is "the best thing I have seen all year"? That's never been a lie, but the bar raises a notch every week or so, and this is turning out a banner year for theater excellence here in Boston.
Stay tuned for future developments....