To a certain extent, the history of New York theater in the last decade has been the history of gay theater. Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!", which has made the journey from Manhattan Theater Club to the Walter Kerr with all its virtues intact, is a key moment in that history.
Unlike many recent gay plays, whose tone was accusatory and shrill, "Love" is not a political statement. It documents the moment when the word "gay," which used to mean merry and mirthful as well as "homosexual," has come to mean bittersweet, if not sorrowful.
The play, about eight men - lovers, former lovers, would-be lovers - spending three holiday weekends together over a summer in an old house in Duchess County, is full of scenes that, 20 years ago, might have seemed silly but are now tinged with sadness.
I was again deeply moved by the sight of six men in tutus doing the dance of the little swans from "Swan Lake," which seems, in this context, an elegy for an innocence, a giddiness now lost and irreplaceable. The play is mostly hilarious, but the laughter is never unalloyed.
If anything, "Love!" seems sharper than it did before. Perhaps this is because Nathan Lane, as a costume designer who has AIDS, gets even more mileage out of McNally's great zingers about the dying art of musical theater. Or perhaps it is because Anthony Heald, the one new cast member, is far more engaging than his predecessor as an irritable lawyer.
All of the other performances have retained their potency, especially John Glover as twins and Stephen Bogardus as the choreographer in midlife crisis.
Incidentally, I am amused by how much tongue-wagging the abundant nudity has caused. Is this New York or Peoria?
Besides, did Jayne Mansfield steal the show 40 years ago in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" because she could act?
The Manhattan Theater Club's production of Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" was enthusiastically received when it opened Off Broadway in November. At that time even its admirers, including me, could not have dreamed that this proudly gay play stood a chance of becoming a mainstream hit.
That seems a distinct possibility now that "Love! Valour! Compassion!" has transferred, virtually intact (one cast change), to the Walter Kerr Theater, where it opened last night.
By coincidence, this is the same theater that housed "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's award-winning "gay fantasia on national themes." Though both deal with gay characters and concerns, they're otherwise very different. Mr. Kushner's play is a bold attempt to create a theatrical epic, a slangy American equivalent to "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained."
"Love! Valour! Compassion!" is something else. Its roots are in old-fashioned Broadway theater, specifically in the house-party comedy, brought up to date and to brand-new life. Set in a comfortable farmhouse in Dutchess County, N.Y., it's about eight mostly upper-middle-class homosexual men, most of them in their early middle age, in the time of AIDS. Over three successive holiday weekends in one summer, they gather to relax, celebrate their friendship and consider their lives while making accommodations to survive.
This is not the sort of thing you might expect to draw Broadway's usual big spenders. Yet "Love! Valour! Compassion!" is written, directed and acted with such theatrical skill and emotional range that it's as broadly entertaining as it is moving.
I don't mean to denigrate the gifts of both Mr. McNally and Joe Mantello, the director, to suggest that this production was made for Broadway: it's utterly contemporary; its one-liners are sometimes hysterical and are slammed home with style, most often by the incomparable Nathan Lane; it has genuine pathos that's only slightly tinged with sentimentality, and, as a singular talking point, it offers more male nudity than has probably ever been seen in a legitimate Broadway theater.
Is the nudity essential? Does it turn men into sex objects? Is it cheap exploitation? Discuss amongst yourselves. If you do become obsessed by what is, in effect, a carefully calculated, decidely intrusive staging decision, you will miss a most adventurous new comedy by a playwright who has paid his dues and learned his craft well.
Mr. McNally's credits are long and include "The Ritz" (1975), one of the few authentic American farces of our time, and the book for the current "Kiss of the Spider Woman." With "Love! Valour! Compassion!" he has finally created what might be his chef d'oeuvre: a play as funny as anything he has done before, wrapped in melancholy and written with a freedom that equals Dennis Potter's high-handed treatment of time in "The Singing Detective."
As the narrative unfolds, Mr. McNally's characters not only talk directly to the audience, but they also comment on what the other characters are saying to the audience. They feed us facts they couldn't possibly know at the time they reveal them. They see into the future to illuminate the past and to give the frequently rocky present added poignancy.
The result is a theatrical experience of unusual richness, about characters of unexpected dimension. Most important: Gregory Mitchell (Stephen Bogardus), a successful dancer and choreographer who is the host of these weekends and is haunted by age; John Jeckyll and his twin brother James (both played by John Glover), one a self-loathing bully, the other a genteel queen dying of AIDS; and Buzz Hauser (Mr. Lane), who is H.I.V. positive, desperately lonely and not about to go quietly into the night.
The self-described role models for the group are Arthur Pape (John Benjamin Hickey), an accountant, and Perry Sellars (Anthony Heald), a lawyer, the role played in the original production by Stephen Spinella. Arthur and Perry have have been together 14 years. As a couple, they are idealized and, in these circumstances, boringly conventional. On his own, though, Perry seethes with the fear and anger that only John Jeckyll expresses, which may be the reason the two men so thoroughly detest each other. Creating the sexual tension in this demi-paradise are two younger fellows: Gregory's lover Bobby Brahms (Justin Kirk), who is blind, and Ramon Fornos (Randy Becker), a Puerto Rican dancer and John's lover of the moment.
"Love! Valour! Compassion!" runs three hours with two intermissions, but don't worry. Under Mr. Mantello's direction, on Loy Arcenas's beautiful, spare, Magritte-like unit set, the play sweeps effortlessly along as the characters fall in and out of love, argue, swim, dine, sleep, flirt and talk, which they do especially well.
The performances seem even better than they did at the Manhattan Theater Club, if only because the actors have had an extended try-out period. Mr. Heald, the only newcomer, is an edgier, far more tense Perry than Mr. Spinella, which works fine.
The danger now is that the actors will continue to improve too much. At the Saturday afternoon preview I attended, Mr. Glover, who is splendid in his dual role, received what seemed to be a spontaneous response from one member of the audience during a monologue addressed to the house. Whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure. It's impressive when a patron becomes so heedlessly involved in what's happening on the stage, but it could lead to chaos for everybody else.
Mr. Lane remains the center of this production, at least in part because he has the best lines. His Buzz can't be torn from the television set during a showing of the remake of "Lost Horizon." Or, as he says, "I never miss the chance to watch Liv Ullmann sing and dance." Yet Mr. Lane is such an accomplished actor that he carries off the quiet moments with as much brio as he does his comic turns.
Would "Love! Valour! Compassion!" have the same impact if it were about heterosexuals instead of homosexuals? Of course not. Mr. McNally hasn't written a play about gay people living straight lives. It's a comedy about some comparatively privileged gay people in a world whose problems are ultimately shared by everyone. Though particular, as all good plays are, it's not parochial.
"Love! Valour! Compassion!" is the kind of solid, serious, non-musical American comedy that Broadway hasn't seen in years.
Terrence McNally's play arrives on Broadway with one major cast change but otherwise, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" makes a smooth transition from the Manhattan Theater Club, where it opened mostly to acclaim in November, to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theater. Produced under the reduced costs-reduced ticket prices Broadway Alliance plan, the play looks like an attractive box office player and a shoo-in for all the top awards nominations.
"Love!" is that rarity these days: a three-act play full of humor and pathos. It's set over three summer holiday weekends at a country house in the exurban Dutchess County, N.Y., dacha of choreographer Gregory and his blind lover, Bobby (Justin Kirk).
They're joined by two other gay couples: Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) and Perry (Anthony Heald), who have been together for 14 years; along with John (John Glover, who in the later acts doubles as John's twin, James), an unlikable expatriate Brit who wrote a flop musical and now is Gregory's rehearsal pianist, and John's boy toy, Ramon (Randy Becker), a predatory Puerto Rican-born dancer.
But the linchpin of the group, its resident wit and gadfly, is Gregory's costumier Buzz (Nathan Lane), an AIDS sufferer and activist, not to mention repository of scads of musical theater arcana, who mourns the death of Broadway and its stars nearly as deeply as he mourns the death of nearly everyone around him.
"Love!" flows with heartfelt writing and becomes quite moving in the relationship that develops between Buzz and the "good" twin, James. It's also very funny, due mostly to Lane, who delivers venerable comic shtick with utter freshness, authority and conviction. He's by no means alone in praiseworthiness. The ensemble is altogether winning, and if Anthony Heald -- like Lane, an old McNally hand -- lacks some of the fine shading brought to the role originally by Stephen Spinella, it hardly will be noticeable to the play's newcomers.
As it was at the smaller City Center, the play has been staged with elegiac tenderness by Joe Mantello, who last appeared on this same stage as Louis Ironson in "Angels in America." But good as it is, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" is no "Angels in America" and the differences are even more striking now: Where "Angels" took in a whole world -- indeed several worlds, real and imagined, political, sexual, religious and social --"Love!" is self-referential and cramped, and flirts with being maudlin. Suffused with sadness and death along with the laughs, it's occasionally tasteless and the flaunted nudity may prove to be a major turnoff to a part of the aud, straight and gay, the play will need to attract if it is to have a long run.
Even if Broadway weren't such parched territory for new plays, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" would be an outstanding entry. The sense of loss it summons is heartbreaking.