The Actors Group production of Love! Valour! Compassion!, Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning epic about friendship and fealty told by a lot of frequently naked gay men, is a manipulative, richly comedic three-act that probably plays better to a gay crowd than a straight one. Its frequent references to campy old musicals and an obscure Glenda Jackson joke beg the question. Still, sexual preferences notwithstanding, it's worth enduring the play's three and a half hours.
This is an especially solid production, with first-rate acting and firm direction. And McNally's play is sad and funny and full of defiance. But it's way too long, overstuffed with information unnecessary for comprehending the characters (eight gay men played by seven actors) or grasping the themes (love, friendship, mortality). At least two scenes exist for each point McNally hopes to make, just in case we missed it, having been distracted by all the unclad penises onstage.
My main gripe with the play--and with McNally's work in general--is that he takes too long getting where he's going. He's put so much into making his works heroic and epic that he's forfeited any spontaneity. As a result, his pacing is deadly, and no director--not even the talented Matthew Mazuroski, who helmed this production--can amend it.
Love! Valour! Compassion! takes place during three long summer weekends: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. On each holiday, Gregory, a famous choreographer, and his lover, Bobby, are hosting a group of close friends at their country home outside New York City. The guests: Arthur and Perry, married to each other for 14 years; Buzz, a costume designer; John Jeckyll, an unpleasant British pianist; his twin brother, James, who is HIV-positive; and Ramon, John's perfidious boyfriend. The men share a long common history and serve as mouthpieces for the half-dozen or so primary issues that gay men are supposedly dealing with these days: AIDS, fidelity, relationships and which celebrities are gay.
Entertainments like Love! Valour! Compassion! make me wonder if I know the right gay people--because none of the homosexuals I'm acquainted with has this kind of comedic timing. Like so many other playwrights, McNally has written a roomful of Eve Ardens who breathe arch witticisms rather than simply talk to one another. But here the humor helps keep us from noticing how long we've been in our seats, and McNally is wise enough not to have every joke be about sex, a failing of many gay-themed comedies.
Leaving after the second act isn't an option, because McNally hooks us with engaging characters who, in this Arizona premiere, are well-acted. David Jones is especially compelling as the blind man-child who sees more than most of his colleagues, and Darell Copp is perfect as the warm-hearted host whose life and career are falling apart around him. Tony Castellanos turns in an energetic performance as the corrupt chorus boy who wins in the end, and John King and Gil Berry are both likable as the long-married couple, the only really contented people in the story. Berry, who stepped into his role at the 11th hour, is especially charming as the long-suffering spouse who's all too aware of his status as an older man in a culture that worships youth and disdains fidelity. ("We're role models," he says. "It's very stressful.")
I've carped in the past about Robert L. Harper's attempts at dramatic acting, but here he proves his talent for comedy as Buzz, a wisecracking, musical-comedy-obsessed sissy who gets all the best one-liners. Harper's is the only character who speaks of love and life without sounding maudlin, because his emotional outbursts are preceded by brave, funny dialogue: "I want to see a Sound of Music where the entire Von Trapp family dies in an authentic Alpine avalanche," he announces during a speech about death. "Or a Kiss Me, Kate where she's got a big cold sore on her mouth."
Rusty Ferracane, usually a bright spot, is the only disappointment here. His portrayal of a pair of British brothers, one of whom is dying because of AIDS, reminded me of Hayley Mills' as twin sisters in the movie The Parent Trap. Ferracane, saddled with the two Jeckyll siblings, simply plays one brother faster and funnier than the other. The unfunny brother, John Jeckyll, is more like Mr. Hyde, a one-dimensional meany who never cracks a smile and who's handed lines that apparently can only be read with an arched eyebrow. Eventually, even the friendly characters get around to mouthing monologues about death and the unfairness of it all. And while I'd like one day to see a gay play in which the homosexual men are neither perfectly clever nor annoyingly self-pitying, at least this time out the pathos and humor are well-balanced. Other than the play's length, its only excess is Perry's unfortunate habit of punctuating every exchange with the word "anyway," a refrain that several other personalities take up and eventually beat into the ground.
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There's a smattering of compassion in the writing, and a lot of tatty references to sex as would-be representations of love between gay men. But the valor--regardless of how you spell it--is everywhere: in the scene where Buzz displays his brotherhood with other men by kissing James' AIDS lesion, as well as the scene where Bobby, minutes after learning that his sister has died, confesses to his lover that he's been unfaithful. These brief, powerful moments drive this play; I'm not certain why McNally needs three and a half hours for the filler. It's as if he's writing the last piece he'll ever produce and is cataloguing every possible variation on the theme, in addition to showing off everything he knows about classical music and musical comedy.
After three and a half hours of witty sarcasm, despite solid direction and capable acting, I was impatient! indifferent! sleepy! But apparently theatergoers here are willing to brave a longish three-act. The Actors Group has announced that, because of a sold-out opening weekend and the volume of advance ticket sales, Love! Valour! Compassion! has been extended another week. Which is good news, because McNally's play should be seen, despite its daunting length.
Anyway. . . .
The Actors Group production of Love! Valour! Compassion! continues through Saturday, May 24, at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, Alvarado and Coronado streets. For more details, see Calendar.