At the heart of the provocative 1992 drama The Twilight of the Golds lies a hypothetical medical and moral dilemmma: If you are pregnant and find out, through a futuristic prenatal genetic test, that your child is going to be gay, what do you do? For some of us, if science were really able to determine such information, the question would not be a quandary. As long as the fetus had ten fingers, ten toes, no birth defects, and no fatal diseases, we would dust off the knitting needles and get to work on those baby booties.

Playwright Jonathan Tolins does not assume such a utopian level of tolerance, however, and he has fashioned a heart-wrenching, if overwritten, first play in which a family facing this predicament does not survive intact. The bittersweet drama playing at the Off Broadway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale suffers from "first script" syndrome -- Tolins seems compelled to stuff every idea he has ever had inside two acts and nobody, it seems, forced him to edit himself. Yet director Brian C. Smith senses the power at the core of the play and, undaunted by narrative excess and a portentous tone, he elicits poignant performances from an accomplished cast.

Suzanne Gold-Stein (Rachel Tench), a buyer for Bloomingdale's in New York City, announces at a family gathering that she is pregnant. Her husband, Dr. Rob Stein (Gordon McConnell), a biotech researcher at a cutting-edge genetics laboratory, urges her to undergo a state-of-the-art amniocentesis administered by his boss. With a doctor's unshakable faith in the efficacy of scientific advances, Rob sees no reason he and his wife shouldn't avail themselves of the latest technology. When the test reveals that their son will most likely be homosexual, however, the future suddenly doesn't seem so unshakable. The couple considers ending the pregnancy, and Suzanne's parents Phyllis (Joan Turner) and Walter (Len Stanger) support them. But one member of the Gold clan refuses to give his blessing. Suzanne's brother David (Greg Baruch), a set designer at the Metropolitan Opera, happens to be gay, and he has the bad taste to disrupt the family's middle-class equilibrium by taking the abortion as a personal rejection.

Tolins has a keen ear for family banter; the witty dialogue during the play's early scenes establishes family dynamics that are affectionate yet complicated. These dynamics solidly set the stage for the emotional fireworks that follow Suzanne's decision. Unfortunately, the playwright is not content to illuminate the complex issues of genetic testing, homophobia, and family bonding through a simple, linear story. Instead, as if he doesn't trust the drama inherent in the interaction between his players, he structures his tale as a flashback, unnecessarily priming us through an explanatory opening monologue delivered by David. Tolins also interrupts the action at later moments with long-winded asides by three other characters who offer more information about the Golds than we ever need to know. Finally, intent on driving home a moral point, Tolins couches his tale in a heavy-handed opera allegory, then beats the audience over the head with that allegory as if he's asking, "Did you get the message? No? Wham! Here it comes again."

The playwright borrows his title The Twilight of the Golds from The Twilight of the Gods, the fourth and final opera in German composer Richard Wagner's epic Ring cycle. In Gods, the deity Wotan rejects his daughter Brunhild when she strays from the path of duty and convention, only to be destroyed himself in the end along with all the other gods when Brunhild and her lover Siegfried emerge from exile in order to create a brave new world. Or something like that. I confess I don't have a taste for German opera and I should have listened more closely to David's synopsis of Gods. Granted, actor Greg Baruch tried to make the ponderous tale compelling, but a blow-by-blow summary of a libretto smack-dab in the middle of a (forgive me) straight play is a thankless task for any actor. Throw in actual smoke and fire, the silhouettes of actors behind a scrim enacting passages from Gods, and an impressive backdrop painting of craggy mountains that serves as a visual contrast to a set design of Suzanne and Rob's yuppie digs. Such lavishly executed staging more than underscores Tolins's connection between operatic grandiosity and the Gold family's saga; two or three succinct spoken references would have been enough.

In Twilight Tolins does tackle controversial issues head-on; he also humanizes a hypothetical exploration of scientific scruples by grounding that exploration in concrete details of family life. And director Smith never loses sight of those details as he nimbly juggles present-day action with Wagnerian subtext. In turn, each actor shades his or her characterization with equal amounts of moral conviction and ambivalent feelings toward each other. Tench and Baruch convincingly portray devoted siblings who suffer irreparably when they part ways. McConnell projects numb disillusionment when his beloved science fails him. Turner inspires sympathy as the well-meaning but meddling mother, and Stanger is particularly moving as the willfully optimistic father who can't bring himself to hug his son.

Despite some narrative clumsiness, The Twilight of the Golds asks hard questions about sexuality, unconditional love, family loyalty, and medical ethics. Seeing this production will send you out into the night, grappling with some disturbing responses to those questions.

Twilight of the Golds. Written by Jonathan Tolins; directed by Brian C. Smith; with Greg Baruch, Rachel Tench, Gordon McConnell, Joan Turner, and Len Stanger. Through August 25. For information call 566-0554 or see "Calendar Listings.

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