Martin Rayner, left, and Charles Shaw Robinson in "Gates of Gold"
"Gates of Gold" by Frank McGuinness
59E59 Theater. New York
"Gates of Gold," Irish playwright Frank McGuinness’ seriously funny play about mortality, is set in the lavish home of Gabriel and Conrad, two famous and elderly men of the theater.
Although Gabriel is dying there’s more than a hint of Noel Coward in this promising set up, and McGuinness expertly sets about unmasking the real feelings animating the deceptively witty surfaces.
Both men, it turns out, are loosely based on the real-life Irish actor, designer and playwright Micheal Mac Liammoir and his longtime partner, director Hilton Edwards, the co-founders of Dublin’s legendary Gate Theatre.
As McGuinness reminds us, Edwards and Mac Liammoir were remarkable men for many reasons. They were an openly gay couple living together in Dublin at a time when being gay was a crime.
Edwards and Mac Liammoir gave Dublin a cultural life transfusion by staging provocative (and for the time, often shocking) theater productions that looked toward Europe for their themes, rather than to Connemara.
When "Gates of Gold" opens Gabriel is an elderly man close to death, and those around him are slowly and reluctantly coming to terms with his imminent demise.
Martin Rayner is a revelation as Gabriel, the terminally ill central character. Alternating with lightening speed between moments of laughter, fury and stark terror, Rayner makes the most of a dream role, carrying the play from its opening scene to its heartbreaking and memorable conclusion.
The sight of an old couple fretting over the prospect of one partner’s imminent death is something that cannot fail to move most audiences, whether the couples themselves are heterosexual or, in this case, homosexual. Love, the playwright gently reminds us, is in rather short supply usually, and it’s always a shame to see it come to an end.
As Conrad, Gabriel’s long-suffering partner, Charles Shaw Robinson is drolly funny as the dry as dust theater director whose frosty exterior hides the heart of a lion. Generously too, Shaw Robinson’s subtle and understated performance throws light on the odd couple relationship between the two men and anchors the play throughout.
Both of them, it turns out, have been unfaithful to each other frequently, with taxi drivers and eager actors and other sundry city types, and yet both remain scaldingly jealous of each other’s erotic misadventures.
Rayner and Shaw Robinson are particularly good at finding the real fury that sometimes lurks beneath the most offhand or catty remark. And although they are also sometimes camp, they are at all times immensely courageous, tempering all the play-acting with real and enduring feeling.
Kathleen McNenny, who plays Gabriel’s tough talking nurse Alma, finds exactly the right balance of toughness and tenderness in a role that leaves us worrying about what will become of her.
Diane Ciesla as Kassie, Gabriel’s free spirited sister, is the delightfully selfish monster who overlooks her brother’s impending death to talk about her own problems. A charming card shark of a woman, she loves her brother deeply, and her pain at the thought of his passing is one of the emotional anchors of the play.
The cast is ably supported by recent Julliard graduate Seth Numrich as the subtle and self-immolating handsome young man who cannot find a context for himself amid a great love story that omits him completely.
"Gates of Gold," despite the soothing title, lead to death. And the reality of death stands, as poet Phillip Larkin once wrote, plain as a wardrobe.
It doesn’t matter how brave or witty you are, it doesn’t matter if you were true or untrue; the prospect of impending death really doesn’t alter if you moan at it or try to withstand it. That awareness is at the center of McGuinness’ touching play.
Gabriel may be a rare, exotic bird, and every bit as treasurable, but his number’s up, and there’s nothing to be done but face it head on. In doing so, this deceptively simple play will break your heart.
"Gates of Gates" is playing at 59 East 59th Street, New York, until March 29. For tickets call 212-279-4200.