One of the title characters in Arthur Laurents' new play, "2 Lives," is an 80-year-old gay playwright, suggesting the play has partly autobiographical dimensions. Why then is it so puzzlingly opaque?

One of the title characters in Arthur Laurents’ new play, “2 Lives,” is an 80-year-old gay playwright, suggesting the play has partly autobiographical dimensions. Why then is it so puzzlingly opaque?

The plot is simple enough: Playwright Matt Singer’s younger lover of 35 years, Howard, suddenly drops dead of an aneurysm at the end of act one, and the older man struggles to cope. But the play doesn’t jell — its tone varies from romantic to bitter without settling down. “2 Lives” plays like a very early draft of a play that has yet to find its feet.

James Sutorius, as Howard, gives the most convincing and appealing performance. He doesn’t overplay the character’s sexuality. In fact, it’s a downer when Howard dies, but Sutorius remains onstage in act two: Howard is alive to Matt, who refuses to give him up since he believes he can’t write without his best audience. Tom Aldredge’s Matt is a bit one note, but one of the play’s flaws is that the two central characters are often upstaged by supporting ones, so that we never learn enough about them.

Chief among these is Cigdem Onat’s colorful Nerissa, a flamboyantly self-centered English actress intent on getting her big West End hit “Antigone in America” produced on Broadway. She’s bisexual, as is Willi (juicily played by Susan Kellermann), an old married friend of the gay men who has just popped in and out of Nerissa’s bed.

Elizabeth Wilson does her best with Howard’s batty mother, Eloyse, who sings old songs much of the time because she has little memory of anybody or anything else. She’s a real trial for the audience. Jeremiah Kissel is aptly tacky as a far from honorable producer named Leo Kondracki.

At one point, Leo suggests Matt’s problem is that he wants “a theater that is dead and gone,” a comment that may also be uncomfortably applicable to “2 Lives.” It sometimes seems dated and awkward. Neither act is helped by beginning with Matt reading to Howard bits and pieces from the play he’s writing. And even the setting is puzzling. It’s a private park owned by Matt and Howard that has been oddly designed by James Noone: Its patch of grass looks more like a shag rug.

Laurents has given a great deal to the American theater over the years, but as it stands, “2 Lives” will not add anything to his well-earned reputation. It never rings true, and there’s little the cast or director Nicholas Martin can do to overcome this stark problem.

2 Lives

Lyric Stage Co. of Boston; 244 seats; $38 top

Production

A Lyric Stage Co. of Boston presentation in association with Boston's Huntington Theater Co., by special arrangement with the Gersh Agency, of a play in two acts by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Nicholas Martin.

Creative

Set, James Noone; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Jeff Carnevals; music, Robert Waldman; sound, Ben Emerson; production stage manager, Jason Rossman. Opened March 16, 2003. Reviewed March 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Matt Singer - Tom Aldredge Howard Thompson - James Sutorius Eloyse Thompson - Elizabeth Wilson Meryanne Jenkins - Helen McElwain Scooter Jenkins - Michael Kaye Willi Thurman - Susan Kellermann Leo Kondracki - Jeremiah Kissel Nerissa Gray - Cigdem Onat
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