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Dying Gaul a vivid portrait of love in La-La Land

In the first scene of Craig Lucas' play The Dying Gaul, a movie producer tells a writer that he loves his script about a homosexual couple facing AIDS, only he wants the couple rewritten as straight. As consolation, the mini-mogul assures the screenwriter that he can feature gay supporting characters, who don’t have to be "gags," and they don’t have to be "noble," either.

Not that there's anything wrong with movies or plays putting gay people in comic or tragic situations; Lucas' screenplay for the landmark AIDS film Longtime Companion offers a kind of "noble" template. But that remark in Dying Gaul points to how gay roles can be pigeonholed as either brave victims or campy comic relief, and in real life, human beings are rarely defined by a single trait.

The Dying Gaul, however, overturns stereotypes and short circuits our expectations at its Actor's Express production. Like Steve Murray's Rescue and Recovery last summer, The Dying Gaul could be called a "post-AIDS" play, in which the disease casts its shadow across the characters, but we're more concerned with their lives after the deaths of others. Cleverly up to date and unpredictable, The Dying Gaul takes its characters into some ambiguous territory indeed.

Lucas' play begins like yet another satire about swimming with the Hollywood sharks, as screenwriter Robert (Jeff Feldman) takes a story meeting with hip producer Jeffrey (Maurice Ralston), who praises his screenplay, titled The Dying Gaul, while bemoaning its commercial prospects. Jeffrey offers his amusingly mercenary attitude on the political statements in the films Tootsie and Silence of the Lambs.

Robert soon faces one of those million-dollar show business deals with the devil, with Feldman nicely conveying Robert's pangs of conscience: The couple in his script are based on himself and his late lover Malcolm, who died of AIDS, and rewrites could mean violating his own memories.

After the first scene, the play's focus shifts away from show business, and it could take place in any number of big city industries. With Buddhism a frequent topic of conversation and director Nancy Keystone's set cleverly employing Japanese-style screens, Los Angeles remains the logical locale. While working together, Robert begins an affair with Jeffrey, an admitted bisexual, despite Robert's growing friendship with Jeffrey's wife Elaine (Jen Apgar), who knows far more about her husband's affairs than he suspects.

Learning that Robert is fond of certain Internet chat rooms, and wanting to share in the intimacy her husband has found, Elaine gets some inside information on Robert and uses it to construct a false online personality that completely hooks the screenwriter. Lengthy scenes involve instant electronic messaging between Robert and Elaine incognito, and though they're rather trendy, a la You've Got Mail, they're credibly and efficiently written and the best means of advancing this particular plot. Be warned that they can also involve graphically sexual language, although the play features no nudity.

Apgar is dead-on as a Hollywood wife, affectionate, flighty and sneakier than you'd expect. In one speech she says "stragedy," meaning "strategy," and Apgar's so naturalistic you're not sure, for a moment, if it's the actress or the character who's flubbed. My only quibble is that Apgar's Elaine seems to lack fangs. She claims that she means no harm in her scheme, and is only acting out of affection for both her husband and his lover. But the plan amounts to a cruel prank on Robert, and Elaine's motivations no doubt have a sharper edge.

Ralston played a more cartoony film producer in Whole World's Four Dogs and a Bone several seasons ago, but he makes Jeffrey more complex and life-sized. You might say that Jeffrey is both better and worse that the cliched movie maker, capable of emotional vulnerability, yet eagerly living up to the producer stereotype, bellowing profanities into cell phones. Dressed perfectly for the part, Ralston is most effective when Jeffrey admits the difficulties of being bisexual, of not being just one thing.

The Dying Gaul finds some funny moments (Elaine's first on-line alias is "Skinflute7"), but fewer laughs than you might expect. Watching it, I wondered if ex-artistic director Chris Coleman, such a sure hand at urban comedy, would have exploited more of the play's comic possibilities, but by the end, Keystone's restraint seemed appropriate. In the second act the action takes an increasingly sinister turn, with characters speaking idly of murder and passionately of suicide.

The play's startling, weighty conclusion leaves you with plenty to discuss afterwards, with Lucas hinting at having less sympathy for both his characters and the tenets of Buddhism than we've been lead to believe. The Dying Gaul's final twists might be melodramatic, but the production's acting and direction are consistently vivid and credible, creating a portrait of people who never seem less than real, whether they're gay or otherwise.

The Dying Gaul plays through Aug. 12 at Actor's Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St., with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun. $20-25. 404-607-7469.

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