* Writer: Craig Lucas * Director: Mark Brokaw * Starring: Tony Goldwyn, Tim Hopper, Linda Emond * Vineyard Theatre, New York City

Grief and rage go hand in hand. Ask playwright Craig Lucas. He’s been there. In 1995, after his lover died, the author of Longtime Companion wrote a fierce, now-famous “Postcard from Grief” (first published in The Advocate and later anthologized in Gay Men at the Millennium). The same raw, scorching emotion clearly fueled the writing of his latest Off-Broadway play, The Dying Gaul, set in Los Angeles in 1995.

The title refers to a screenplay by Robert (Tim Hopper), whose lover and agent Malcolm has recently died of AIDS. It’s about, surprise, a gay man and his lover who has AIDS. Hollywood producer Jeffrey (Tony Goldwyn) loves the script. He’s shown it to Gus Van Sant already. He wants to buy it. Just a couple of things, though. To reach the widest number of viewers, the main characters can’t be gay. And the title has to go. “The Dying Gaul will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be made,” the producer flatly assures Robert. A man of integrity and conscience, the writer is on his way out the door when the producer mentions the sum he’s willing to pay for the script. It’s big. Then he mentions the stars who are interested in the leading roles. They’re big, too. Finally, he pulls Robert into a Hollywood hug and comments on the bulge it produces in his pants, which is apparently big enough to intrigue Robert, who succumbs. After all, the producer looks like, well, Tony Goldwyn.

From the setup, you might think The Dying Gaul will be a fast, funny, nasty satire about gay Hollywood hypocrisy, a postcard from territory explored by Jon Robin Baitz (Mizlansky/Zilinsky) and David Mamet (Speed-the-Plow), among others. But the play goes somewhere else entirely. Jeffrey has kids and a wife, Elaine (Linda Emond), who’s no dummy. Determined not to be shut out of whatever’s going on between the two men, she tracks down Robert in an AOL chat room and pretends to be another grieving fag seeking bereavement counselling. She even goes so far as to ransack his therapist’s client files and then use privileged information to pose as his dead lover, communicating with Robert from the beyond under the online handle “Archangel.” A good half of the play takes place in the eerie virtual/artificial intimacy of cyberspace, which Robert -- who’s a sort of online Orpheus -- likens to “life after death, all these disembodied souls.” In this realm nothing is what it seems, and wounding sometimes masquerades as healing.

It was inevitable that cruisy chat-rooms would show up in plays and movies, but remarkably Lucas incorporates cybersex, Buddhism, and closety Hollywood homos not for their trendy currency but to explore deep spiritual questions: what is unconditional love? how do we learn to forgive ourselves? how do we live with loss? what happens to love after death? Lucas proves that these aspects of gay experience truly do have universal applications. And he does so without ever watering down his burning gay rage that, for instance, the death of an ex-princess in a car accident can trigger world-wide mourning while our own losses pile up barely noticed. Director Mark Brokaw’s production is as simple, fleet, and haunting as his staging of Paula Vogel’s prize-winning How I Learned to Drive at the same theater last year. And the performances are superb, by Edmond, Goldwyn, and especially sexy and soulful Tim Hopper, who is well on his way to becoming a legendary talent.

The Advocate, July 7, 1998

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