A long winning streak like Berkeley Rep’s was bound to hit a snag sooner or later. Unfortunately, it’s arrived in what had been the most eagerly anticipated new play of the Bay Area season. Co-created by two stellar local artistic directors — the Rep’s Tony Taccone and California Shakespeare’s Jonathan Moscone — “Ghost Light” probes the latter’s real-life burden as son of assassinated Mayor George Moscone. Alas, this intriguing subject goes off the rails amidst a strained mix of quip-heavy comedy and failed phantasmagoria that emerges a flat-out misfire as well as a curiously unflattering vanity project.
With Moscone directing his own funhouse-mirrored life on stage, in a script developed with Taccone (who gets official “written by” credit), this enterprise illustrates by default the virtues of employing someone else’s more detached, critical eye when approaching very personal terrain. Self-conscious in all the wrong ways, “Ghost Light” alternately aims for Terrance McNally-esque bitchy witticisms and sprawling meta-theater a la “Angels in America” (which Taccone originally commissioned), the results seldom feeling more than effortful and derivative.
Jon (Christopher Liam Moore) is a gay, middle-aged stage director of some repute whose fixation on the Ghost father in his upcoming “Hamlet” is an obvious metaphor for what he’s finally “cracking up” over: a lifetime in the shadow of his own late father, famously assassinated by Dan White at S.F.’s City Hall in 1978. Repressed grief and rage, stunted adult relationships, et al. boil over as Jon experiences waking meltdowns and disturbing dreams. The latter involve his teenage self (Tyler James Myers) and an imaginary lover (Danforth Comins), each haunted by their own dream nemeses (Peter Macon and Bill Geisslinger, the first in a role over-reminiscent of Mr. Lies in “Angels”).
Meanwhile in the real world, Jon is prodded toward facing his demons by good pal Louise (Robynn Rodriguez), corresponds with a chat-room “date” (Ted Deasy), and visits the set of an arrogant film director’s (Peter Frechette) biopic which — like Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” — reduces George M. to a footnote to gay supervisor Harvey’s martyrdom.
These individual ideas have potential, but they flounder in the script and Moscone’s premiere production, in which nothing meshes organically. Even more than the fizzled one-liners and labored fantasy elements, what hogties “Ghost Light” is its ill-conceived protagonist: While Moore’s Jon is meant to be puckishly neurotic and brilliant, he’s instead the most irksome, tiresome figure onstage, a campy “gay best friend” support type who does not gain depth for being promoted to lead. We don’t feel his pain, though as the interminable evening wends toward heavy-handed catharsis, a different pain is felt.
The actors have an uphill battle with this gluey material, unhelped by an ungainly physical presentation whose City Hall backdrop, rolling props, TV monitors and projections mirror the show’s conceptual clutter.