Deathbed Confessions

Frank McGuinness's new play about two gay men who founded an Irish theater company is rooted in fact: His models are Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir and his partner, the director Hilton Edwards, who started Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1928 and lived together openly in a country where their relationship was considered criminal. Gates of Gold feels like a tribute to the two men from the openly gay playwright, but it’s a strange one. The characters are a group of dysfunctional eccentrics who indulge in emotional and verbal abuse, often confusingly. The theater is given scant attention in favor of a domestic drama that tries to rival much better plays about thorny love-hate relationships, such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Indeed, McGuinness has changed the names, which suggests that he has taken artistic license either to exaggerate or subdue the personality of MacLiammóir (who played Iago in Orson Welles’s film of Othello and followed it with a noted memoir).

The play opens with an interview: Conrad, the partner of Gabriel, a dying, middle-aged actor, warns a new nurse, Alma (Kathleen McNenny), that the patient will be difficult—he has driven away numerous nurses. Gabriel (Martin Rayner), afflicted with bowel cancer and a heart aneurysm, may die of either, but he is dying painfully. Pumped full of morphine, Gabriel is waspish and vain; he puts on makeup that includes lipstick and powder. “He is not a fool,” Conrad warns Alma, “but he is a liar.”

Alma takes the job anyway. When she tries to learn about him, Gabriel feeds her stories of growing up in Salamanca, the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest and an Irish woman studying abroad. Within moments he has reconstituted the tale: his mother was an acrobat with a traveling circus in Buenos Aires when she met his father, an Argentine rancher, on whose farm he was raised. This sort of whimsicality is amusing for a bit, but the flood of blarney soon becomes irritating, and director Kent Paul's production never makes a case for why these characters are important.

Gabriel bickers with the unflappable Conrad (a ramrod-straight Charles Shaw Robinson, nattily dressed by Nanzi Adzima) and accuses him of infidelity with Gabriel’s handsome, troubled nephew, Ryan (Seth Numrich). “Why should he consent to sleep with you?” he muses to Conrad, voicing his suspicions about Ryan. “Is he into necrophilia?” Rayner doesn’t flinch from the nastiness in the character, and skillfully creates a monstre sacré. (He also possesses a voice just as plummy as that of MacLiammóir, who can be heard as the narrator of the bawdy 1963 Oscar-winner, Tom Jones.)

As Gabriel comes to terms with death and his family, Ryan and his mother, Kassie (Diane Ciesla), visit. Gabriel’s sister is herself a tale-spinner who claims to have been a world-class poker player known in Las Vegas as Sylvia. She shares the Argentina chimera, but also makes up her own superstitions: “That’s the kind of us as a family,” she tells Alma. “Always inventive. Always different.” This relentless flood of turbid reminiscences makes the truth hard to grasp, however, and when a crucial piece of the family history is uncovered it beggars belief. For his part, Conrad denies he has ever betrayed Gabriel, although the truth looks a good deal more complicated when he and Ryan kiss.

For added kicks, Gabriel tosses digs at Kathleen McNenny’s anguished, bottled-up Alma, who labors under the guilt her parents placed on her after her twin brother was killed in a car accident and she survived.

McGuinness’s point may be that people forced to live a lie eventually can’t distinguish the truth. Their lives turn rancid. “It is sometimes best to be rid of people,” Gabriel tells Alma. “You can never been too ruthless.” But the perversity of Gabriel’s behavior diminishes one’s sympathy for him. “I have never done anything but lie to you,” he tells Robinson's long-suffering Conrad in one of their vaguely sadomasochistic games. “You believed me.” An audience will have quickly learned not to.

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