The Hollywood Shuffle

Oozing with oily arrogance, a cutthroat movie executive explains to a budding screenwriter that his script about two gay men dying of AIDS isn't likely to play well in middle America. Like Tootsie and Terms of Endearment, he says, such fare can be difficult to sell even when it stars a heavyweight like Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson. After making a few rewrite suggestions, the manic mogul sums up the rules of show business by purring to his newfound protege, "You can do whatever you want--as long as you don't call it what it is."

So ends the first scene in The Dying Gaul, the off-Broadway drama by playwright and screenwriter Craig Lucas being presented at Theatre on Broadway. The two-hour show draws on elements of today's fast-paced lifestyle to illustrate our alarming tendency to give gravity to what's fleeting, depth to what's trivial and texture to what's transparent. For Lucas's quartet of quick-fix artists, it seems, the key to modern-day survival doesn't rest in any particular code or belief system; it's in knowing how to shape and twist one's principles to conform to the demands of the almighty moment.

At least that's what Jeffrey (Robert Mason Ham) seems to be doing when he decides to produce The Dying Gaul, a promising script written by Robert (Nitzan Sitzer), an idealist who's new to the fickle ways of moviemakers and their ruthless financiers. Declaring that the studio can legally make a knockoff of Robert's story without paying him anything, Jeffrey prevails upon Robert to accept a million dollars and let the studio freely adapt his script. The powerful wheeler-dealer also persuades the young artist, whose lover recently died of AIDS, that the two of them should engage in a torrid affair. Eventually, Jeffrey's wife, Elaine (Trina Magness), learns of the affair and enters into an anonymous Internet relationship with her husband's lover. Cleverly using her knowledge of Robert's personal history, which she has learned about during his many visits to the couple's Los Angeles home, Elaine convinces Robert that her chat-room scribblings are otherworldly messages from his deceased lover. After several trips to his psychiatrist, Dr. Foss (Len Kiziuk), and reeling with fresh feelings of betrayal as well as a newfound cynicism that's the product of his XXX-rated relationship with Jeffrey, Robert attempts to confront the truth of his situation. What he finds out leads to several more plot twists and a bizarre cliffhanger ending.

The play is performed against several translucent backdrops--such as the one of Dr. Foss's office window--that are saturated with rich, deep hues or projections suggestive of both mood and locale. (Credit Charles Dean Packard with crafting the evocative set and lighting designs.) The performers also carry props and furniture pieces with them to expedite scene changes, a choice that permits director Nicholas Sugar to streamline the transitions between several one-on-one scenes and soliloquies. Most of the time, the production's exposed theatricality fits with a group of transparent characters who regard the world as their private soundstage and behave as if they're performing in a never-ending movie.

Although the performers form a cohesive, balanced ensemble, Ham and Sitzer's scenes are especially absorbing. The talented pair strikes a comfortable balance between Ham's swaggering and solicitous Jeffrey and Sitzer's fluttering and confused Robert. As Elaine, Magness finds a delightful, hard-edged curiosity that unfortunately brings her character more trouble than adventure. And Kiziuk's therapist is what you'd expect from a La La Land headshrinker: As long as Robert's problems aren't affecting the doctor's own self-image, he's happy to offer superficial suggestions and edifying comments.

However, the playwright's truncated excursions into Buddhist philosophy, chat-room relationships and Hollywood mind games often prove more distracting than illuminating. Lucas frequently introduces interesting ideas and then cuts away before they begin to develop. No sooner does Robert muse about the inevitable conflicts and concessions in an artist's life than the dialogue sinks into a sea of soapy banter and plot-forwarding references. And while Robert and Elaine's discussion about unconditional love is provocative, it comes off as a postscript to Lucas's haphazard mystery rather than a significant thematic undercurrent. As a result, there's not much to hold our interest except those aspects of the movie industry that Lucas seems to be mocking: Who's going to wind up with whom, who will get bumped off, and will there be any gratuitous sex involved? But even though the freewheeling play sometimes looks like it's about to spiral into a fiery crash, Sugar and his talented actors manage to pull the show's nose up before it hits the runway.

The Dying Gaul, through June 5 at Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 303-860-9360.

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Jim Lillie

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