There was enough drama, trauma and fabulous hijinx in the lives and work of Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, the founders of Dublin’s Gate Theater, to fuel several television miniseries — or more appropriately, a good few operas. But Frank McGuinness is remarkably timid and half-hearted in his use of their story as inspiration for this world premiere, at the Gate itself. The play is a welcome reminder of McGuinness’ skill in writing humane, witty, and revealing dialogue, and it provides a marvelous platform for a daringly flamboyant star turn by Alan Howard, but Patrick Mason’s stolid, overblown production only accentuates the play’s deep structural flaws.
McGuinness’ characters are called Gabriel and Conrad, and the play is set in the present day, as opposed to the historically accurate late 1970s, but there is no question the characters are based on MacLiammoir and Edwards: They are a long-committed gay couple who run a theater together, and their personality types — Gabriel the over-the-top actor-fabulist, Conrad the more solid producer figure — map perfectly onto the real-life personalities (local wags have dubbed the play “Gays of Old”).
By blurring their identities, McGuinness clearly wanted to relieve himself from the responsibility of historical accuracy, but it never becomes clear what his real agenda is in telling this story. Its most interesting element is the relationship between the couple in the context of Gabriel’s imminent death, but they get very little time alone together on stage; the focus is constantly pulling toward other characters and subplots.
There’s Alma, a feisty nurse Conrad hires to see Gabriel through his last days. A lovely relationship starts to form between carer and patient, but attempts to build interest in Alma by giving her an obsession with a dead twin brother is a cliche of Irish playwriting that rings deeply untrue. The gentle Donna Dent tries hard but simply can’t pull off lines like (to Conrad), “I’ll clean his arse, but I won’t lick yours”: An earthier presence is required in the role.
Less developed still is the character of Gabriel’s nephew Ryan, who arrives on stage angry, pouts and shouts a lot, and departs again in a huff. Through his presence we are acquainted with a morass of past sexual shenanigans between characters onstage and off: Conrad and Ryan recently had an affair, as did Conrad and Ryan’s father longer ago; and Ryan’s mother, Kassie (Rosaleen Linehan), harboured an unrequited love for Conrad and forced Ryan’s father, now an indigent in a hostel, to repress his homosexuality and marry her. (Got that? Me neither.) Linehan, at least, grabs hold of her limited onstage time and chews the scenery most fetchingly (wearing some fabulous frocks as she does so) as the fantastical Kassie.
Conrad, despite Richard Johnson’s strong stage presence, himself remains a cipher: It’s said that there’s not “a bad bone in his body,” but then why did he cheat on Gabriel so much? Is he really leaving Ryan the house? Mason’s resolutely naturalistic production leads us to such literal questions, though the script itself was wide open for a more imaginative approach. Joe Vanek’s monumental set, split between Conrad and Gabriel’s sitting room and bedroom, becomes its own encumbrance.
For the heart of play and production is lying in the king-sized bed, annoyingly placed stage left instead of front and center: Howard’s extraordinary Gabriel, with his stagy, “r”-rolling diction, floating hands and ever-shifting moods. Here, at least, we have a dramatic throughline in the character’s emotional dance with his fate: His bitchy interchanges with Conrad, confidences with Alma and attempts to comfort Kassie and Ryan paint a moving portrait of a larger-than-life figure confronted with his humanity in the form of his impending death.
The arrival of that moment, at play’s end, is unquestionably moving, but what went before smacks more of avoidance and missed opportunity than the investigation of love and loss the playwright seems to have set out to write.