A compelling play of love and loss


November 08, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Every now and then one of Baltimore's smaller theaters introduces local audiences to an off-Broadway gem that slipped under the radar of larger, more prominent theaters. Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul is just this type of jewel, and Fell's Point Corner Theatre's production lets it gleam.

Like Lucas' better known play, Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul deals with love and loss. But an equally strong theme is the lethal lure of fortune and fame, in this case, Hollywood.

William Runnebaum plays a young writer named Robert, who has written a screenplay titled The Dying Gaul, based on his lover's death from AIDS. In the opening scene, Robert meets with a movie mogul named Jeffrey, ingratiatingly played by Patrick Martyn. Jeffrey is enthusiastic about the screenplay, but he wants one significant alteration. He insists that the central couple be heterosexual instead of homosexual.

Runnebaum displays a gamut of emotions - nervousness, gratitude, disapproval, joy, disbelief - as Robert listens to Jeffrey. Far from being eager or even willing to sell out, Robert is initially outraged by Jeffrey's request. But as we soon discover, Robert is desperate - not desperate for money, but desperate to reconnect with the partner he has lost. And, desperation can take strange forms.

When he suddenly begins hearing from someone called "Arckangell" in an Internet chat room, Robert appears to have made that longed-for connection. Lucas doesn't disguise Arckangell's identity (although I'm not going to reveal it here). But while the play borrows elements from more conventional mysteries or thrillers, what elevates it above that level is the intense yearning and sorrow that motivates Robert, given a finely nuanced portrayal by Runnebaum.

And that's not all Lucas has up his sleeve. In addition to a mystery and a darkly resonant examination of mourning, Lucas introduces a romantic triangle involving Robert, Jeffrey (who is bisexual) and Jeffrey's seemingly accepting wife, Elaine (Susan Scher).

Elaine goes to great lengths to hang on to Jeffrey, a man in whom she unaccountably claims to find goodness. Her dedication strains credibility, as does her eventual anger - one of the only weaknesses in this fascinatingly complex and layered drama. (Another problem comes when actor Stephen Antonsen glosses over a crucial plot point in his otherwise on-key portrayal of Robert's conflicted psychiatrist.)

The Dying Gaul is Fell's Point Corner's second play in a row focusing on loss. But with themes, characterizations, crackling dialogue and inventiveness that call to mind Pulitzer Prize-winners Tony Kushner, David Mamet and Paula Vogel, this is a far more sophisticated work than the monologue-laden season opener, Toni Press-Coffman's Touch.

Under Steve Goldklang's chilling direction, The Dying Gaul keeps you on the edge of your seat at the same time it tears at your heart. Then it delivers the final blow - a twist that'd do Hitchcock proud. This powerful drama pulls no punches, and Fell's Point Corner has given it a deeply affecting Baltimore premiere.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 25. Tickets are $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7837.

De Shields honored

Tomorrow morning, actor Andre De Shields - a 2001 Tony Award nominee for his role in The Full Monty - will be back in his hometown to be inducted into the City College Hall of Fame.

A 1964 graduate of City, De Shields was the first member of his family to attend an integrated school and one that was outside his West Baltimore neighborhood. "It is fulfilling to finally be claimed by Baltimore and by my high school because it was a milestone in my career; it was a milestone in my adolescence; it was a milestone in my relationship with my peers on Division Street and with my siblings that I was the one who broke the mold," he said from his New York apartment earlier this week.

Robert I. H. Hammerman, former chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court and chairman of the Hall of Fame committee, said that besides distinguishing himself in his field, an inductee has to be someone "who can be held up to the student body as a model of accomplishment." In De Shields' case, the committee was impressed not only by his achievements in the theater, but also by his commitment to teaching. (He's an adjunct professor at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study.)

Besides making a few remarks before the student body at tomorrow's ceremony, De Shields will also speak at a luncheon for the honorees. Thirty-five members of his large Baltimore family are planning to attend.

"I'm going to talk about the alchemy of being a Broadway performer. I mean that the calling to a career in the performing arts is not about fame or fortune, it's about service, and the best way to serve is to look at the universe in which we live, see what needs mending and go about mending it," he said.

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