Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Dying Gaul is an Interesting Psychodrama

Also see Richard's reviews of Pippin and Hedda Gabler

Kalli Jonsson and
Michael Phillis

Craig Lucas's 1998 drama The Dying Gaul is being presented in the small bandbox theatre at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. In the dark drama, compassion is intertwined with the savage fierceness of a Greek tragic. Lucas, who wrote the plays Reckless, Longtime Companion and Prelude to a Kiss plus the book for the musical Light in the Piazza, has written his darkest drama.

Craig Lucas is a talented and versatile writer who has a good ear for natural language.  The Dying Gaul holds your interest, even with an ending that seems fake. The drama is rarely superficial since even the shallow character of the Hollywood mogul has some intellectual stature. The play is layered with a lot of subtext and the three main characters have enough complexity to keep you wondering, until the hideous and bogus, twisting final scene.

The Dying Gaul was written in 1998 following the death of Lucas's longtime companion Norman Rene who had directed his elegy of AIDs victims, Longtime Companion. The playwright has invented a gay payback story of exploitation, malice and bloody vengeance in The Dying Gaul. The two-act piece had its world premiere during the spring of 1998 at the Vineyard in New York with Linda Emond, Tony Goldwyn and Tim Hopper in the drama. A film was made by an independent company in 2005 that featured up and coming actors Peter Sarsgaard and Campbell Scott as well as Patricia Clarkson.  It made the rounds of film festivals and played art houses in this country with moderate success before being released on DVD.

The Dying Gaul centers on Robert (Michael Phillis), a neophyte scribe who has written an autobiographical screenplay about a man dealing with the death of his lover who had AIDS. Bisexual Jeffrey (Kalli Jonsson), an executive of a large Hollywood studio, has taken an interest in the screenplay. Jeffrey wants to change the characters and subject manner from two homosexual lovers and death because "No one goes to the movies to have a bad time. Or to learn anything."  He also implies that Americans hate gays.  He wants to make the lovers heterosexual and tells the writer that he will cut him a check for $1 million if he will make the changes. The young writer, who has been living in basement apartments all of his adult life, can't refuse. There is an immediate seduction that seems a little too fast. ("You are very handsome," the producer says as he bear hugs the young man, then, "I am getting a little turned on. Are you?") You could say it is a seduction by negotiation.  

Robert has compromised his ideas to make a small fortune and he is swept into an intoxicating world of sexual ecstasy and intrigue. He has become Jeffrey's "new best boyfriend,"  and Jeffrey invites the young man to his home to meet his wife Elaine (Laura Jane Coles) and the two kids (they are never seen). Elaine likes the mind of the naive young man while Jeffery likes Robert's body. 

Internet chat rooms become the center of focus as Elaine discovers a "Park Bench" gay chat room that Robert uses for sex chats. Elaine uses the name Archangel and Robert, who does not know the identity of the chatter, starts an intellectual relationship. He bares his soul to the unknown Archangel. Robert is stuck between a rock and a hard place with his new style of Hollywood living and having sex with Jeffrey, whom he does not love, and the cyber-buddy who wants him to be his own person and become an independent thinker once again.  The online conversations take up about one fourth of the two act drama and are tad too long, with each actor talking in a mechanical voice.  The action picks up when the conversations go from witty to frightening toward the end of the play.  I won't discuss the scary ending of the drama.

Bruce Elsperger's direction is excellent. He is able to have the actors go from genuine to unreal with their monologues to the audience. The pacing is smooth with very little breaks in the changing of the scenes.

The four member cast is first rate, with a good performance by Michael Phillis (NCTC one man show D'Face). He did have a little problem of voice projection in the first act at the performance I attended, and some trouble finding the character of Robert (I believe it was first night nerves). However, in the second act, he finds the character spot on and gives an insightful performance.

Kalli Jonsson (Laughter on the 23rd Floorat Center Rep) does very well with the sleazy producer Jeffrey. He gives an effortless and efficient performance, showing Jeffrey's healthy affection for his wife and children in the second act. Laura Jane Coles (Kissing the Witch) is chic, smart and warm as Elaine. She is also able to put some dramatic emphasis on the mechanical email voice for the chats. Darren Blaney (Cymbeline at the Shotgun) is effective in the small role of the psychiatrist.

The title of this drama refers to a Roman statue of a wounded soldier that elicits compassion instead of celebrating a military triumph. It has deep personal associations for Robert who discovered it during a trip to Europe with his deceased lover.

The Dying Gaul might not be Craig Lucas's best play but it does sustain interest in the twists and turns of the three main characters, especially in the second act.  It has been extended through March 11 at the middle-size theatre located in the New Conservatory Center located at 25 Van Ness off Market in San Francisco For tickets call the box office at 415-461-8972 or online at

Photo: Lois Tema

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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