"Self-salvation is for any man the immediate task."
This line is repeated often the StageQ production of The Dying Gaul, which opened Thursday at the Bartell Theatre. It's a theme the characters take to heart.
The year is 1995 and Robert (Michael Portman, on loan from New York) is a gay screenwriter whose lover has just died of AIDS. Jeffrey (Richard Ganoung) is a Hollywood executive interested in Robert's screenplay...and in Robert. Jeffrey offers Robert a million dollars for the film, on the agreement that he'll rewrite the story to remove the gay themes. Robert is devastated, but drowning in debt, so he agrees.
Soon we meet Jeffrey's wife (Kathy Lynn Sliter) and Robert's therapist (Scott Albert Bennett) and a sick love quadrangle ensues, with disastrous results.
Michael Portman is a nice choice for Robert, with an endearing sweetness and natural delivery. Unfortunately, both Portman and Sliter (who overall felt like the right choice for Elaine) always seemed on the verge of forgetting their lines, with oddly slow reaction times, swallowing the ends of their sentences as though they weren't sure they had the right words. Even from the second row, it was frequently difficult to understand what was being said.
Richard Ganoung was just the right choice for Jeffrey, with an almost child-like quality to his selfishness. Scott Albert Bennett had less to work with, as his role felt more like a plot device, but his performance had nice levels and depth.
It's a hard story to get behind. Two of the characters are outright sociopaths and a third is merely grossly incompetent. The story leaves no space to breathe, no soft moments to care for these unlovable people. Craig Lucas' play has beautiful language, but often feels like it's trying too hard. Long, flowery passages felt stilted on stage, and the sudden shift mid-story from natural dialogue to fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies was jolting.
Director Greg Harris so often blocked actors with their backs to the audience that I assume it was an intentional choice. The Evjue Stage is a difficult space, with the audience wrapped on three sides. Some effects, such as voices behind the stage to simulate messages in a mid-1990s chat room, were very effective, but sound effects such as ringing phones had a strange hiss and delay. I liked lighting designer Steven Peterson's creative use of gobos, and Matthew Schroeder's costumes were perfect.
The performances have such an exaggerated quietness and slow pace that the sudden, dramatic climax doesn't feel earned. One audience member actually laughed, then seemed to realize it was meant to be sad.
There's a lot of value in this play, not the least of which is the portrayal of a successful bisexual man, but the characters are so loathsome that it was hard to stay invested. I spent most of the play wanting to shake Robert by the shoulders and say, "There are normal people in the world. Go find them."