Frank McGuinness plumbs the depths of his charming characters in “Gates of Gold,” now receiving its U.S. preem from the Artists Theater Group. But he doesn’t do anything else, instead putting his effort into meandering monologues that don’t quite land anywhere. The story of a flamboyant ham actor expiring in the company of his longtime lover, his troubled nurse and his bizarre family has potential for conflict and passion, but the Irish playwright lets it putter along, inert, until death takes its course. Still, a nice turn from Martin Rayner as the queeny tragedian covers a multitude of sins.
“My Desdemona days are long gone,” sighs Gabriel (Rayner) to his partner, Conrad (Charles Shaw Robinson). The vain old thespian has taken to preserving his beauty with a wig and constant application of makeup, but none of his ablutions can quite mask the ravages of age.
McGuiness’ central conceit is moving all by itself: Gabriel is a man well suited to death — something he’s practiced over and over again — but not to dying and its attendant humiliations. For most of the play, Gabriel seems content to be dying, as though awaiting his final cue.
This is a front, of course. Gabriel is a guy who invents wild histories with his sister Kassie (Diane Ciesla, trying and failing to out-diva Rayner) to make up for whatever their childhoods were actually like. Anticlimax and inconvenience don’t suit him; he prefers coy one-liners you can barely hear over his housecoat.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that McGuiness gives this character’s story so many hanging plot threads — but it’s just not satisfying. When we see that one of the hurtful stories Gabriel appears to have invented about Conrad is actually the truth, a huge confrontation seems to be in the works. But no. Instead, “Gates of Gold” is about the inevitable approach of death — not a subject that bends easily to fit a three-act story structure.
McGuinness dramatizes dying as a sort of heightening perception: Gabriel can occasionally hear the dialogue of characters speaking in other rooms, and he responds, sometimes deliriously. There seems to be some sort of organizing force here — events happening simultaneously in the play’s two rooms (separated by lighting, not by a wall) frequently comment on one another. These are clever structural devices, but they’re not full substitutes for narrative.
This play is also a story about nostalgia and lovable Irish people, and depending on your tolerance for self-conscious charm, it will either make you feel right at home or annoy you silly. McGuinness aggravates the weakness with twee jokes about local Irish culture, such as hell resembling a car ride through Limerick.
But for all his missteps, the playwright draws these characters beautifully. The biggest frustration is not that “Gates of Gold” is shallow or poorly conceived; it’s that you leave the theater wishing for a second act in which we find out what happens, for example, to Ryan (Seth Numrich), Gabriel’s angry nephew, who seems not to care about his uncle’s feelings but recoils in fear when he sees that Gabriel is going to die.
The biggest stumbling block is the nurse, Alma (a wonderful Kathleen McNenny), who behaves for most of the play like its central character. She enters the craziness of Gabriel’s family with a story about a dead brother that never comes to fruition, and she serves as our guide to his weird world. Maybe that’s McGuinness’ point — people like Gabriel, Alma and Conrad don’t receive absolution or closure; they just live, and then they die.
It’s an interesting thought, and it rings true, but it hasn’t really been used to propel this play.