Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2007
I have to confess that, having not done my customary research on Love! Valour! Compassion! before attending the performance, I was not prepared for three and a half hours of naked men. I say that right off the bat in order to prepare you, because not everyone likes shows that long or nudity in the theatre, and if you fall into either or both of those categories this is not the show for you.
I am not at all sure that any show needs to be three and half hours long, even Shakespeare can wear out his welcome in that amount of time, but the BTF does give you two intermissions and Love! Valour! Compassion! is excellent theatre well worth your attention.
The plot concerns eight gay men (played by seven actors) on visits to a Dutchess County country house on the three summer holiday weekends (Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day) of 1994. Gregory Mitchell (Romain Frugé), a renowned but aging modern dancer and choreographer, and his blind partner Bobby Brahms (Matthew Wilkas) own the house, which is named Manderley (here unfortunately pronounced Mandalay, which would be an AWFUL name for a gay couple to give their home!) They own a lot of acreage, including a lake in which everyone cheerfully skinny dips. (I will not comment on the lunacy of swimming, with or without a bathing suit, in any Dutchess County lake in the month of May.) Visiting them are Perry Sellars (Jonathan Fried), an uptight lawyer, and his partner of 14 years, Arthur Pape (James Lloyd Reynolds), an accountant; the single and AIDS-striken Buzz Hauser (Stephen DeRosa); and the unpopular pianist John Jeckyll (David Adkins) and his latest flame Ramon Fornos (Ricky Fromeyer), a young Puerto Rican dancer. In the second act we meet John’s twin brother James (also played by Adkins), who also has AIDS and who enters into a romance with Buzz.
The length and sweeping narrative of this play make me think it might have been better conceived as Love! Valour! Compassion!: The Miniseries. Award-winning playwright Terence McNally (1939- ) has created eight fascinating characters and interweaves their lives, as individuals and couples, in an intricate and revealing pattern which covers the gamut of human emotion and experience. Certainly it could have been a shorter play if it was about only six men instead of eight, or if fewer stories were told, but I cannot think of one character or storyline that isn’t fun and interesting and moving, which is why I think perhaps it should have been told in installments instead of in one long sitting.
Anders Cato has directed the outstanding cast beautifully, aided by a top-notch design team of Hugh Landwehr (sets), Jeff Davis (lights) and Scott Killian (sound). On a steeply raked set consisting of three bare clapboard platforms and a cyclorama this creative team give us moonlight on water, twilight in the kitchen, sunlight in the front yard, cicadas singing, bodies swimming, and the never-quiet peace of nature at full summer throttle.
Each of McNally’s characters is fully formed, engaging, endearing, enraging, and very entertaining. I can imagine actors kill to be in this show because there are no bad roles, no minor characters. Here Adkins is moving as the angry John and the gentle James (although I wonder if we really needed the surname of Jeckyll to hammer home the point that these two men are each other’s mirror image?) DeRosa is hilarious and touching as Buzz, the most stereotypically effeminate of the men. Nathan Lane played this role on Broadway, but DeRosa is nothing like Lane and gives us a Buzz who is far more average than flamboyant, but no less funny.*
Wilkas plays the blind and gentle Bobby convincingly, as Frugé does with the stuttering Gregory. The fact that so many of these men have handicaps above and beyond their being gay, which is a “handicap” in the eyes of the straight world, but vanishes with the mist in the seclusion of Manderley, is telling. Bobby is blind, Gregory not only has a speech impediment but has gone completely “dry” creatively and is dealing with the rapid aging of his once supple and well-trained body. Buzz and James are terminally ill, and John is emotionally wounded.
Fried and Reynolds play the opposite end of the gay spectrum, the old “married” couple. This play takes place before gay marriage was a legal reality, but they refer to themselves as married and consider themselves married. At one point Perry refers to he and Arthur as role models and remarks “It’s very stressful.” We see that stress clearly as Perry and Arthur celebrate their 14th anniversary on the 4th of July. Everyone else gets the exclamation points of new love and desire while they get the anticlimactic ellipses of an ongoing relationship.
This is second play dealing with gay issues written in the early 1990’s that I have reviewed in the past two weeks. McNally, who is an openly gay man, is by far the superior writer and Love! Valour! Compassion! is a work of art rather than the annoying straight-bashing exercise that Jonathan Tolins’ The Twilight of the Golds is. Not that there isn’t some good natured straight-bashing in this play, but it is to a purpose. When Buzz goes on his rant about visiting the local bank and finding straight people “everywhere” and exits shouting “They’re taking over!” it is funny and to the point. Straight people have taken over, and they’re reproducing.
But I don’t think that it is mere coincidence that these plays were written at about the same time. The early 1990’s were obvious a critical point for gay Americans. Their ranks had been thoroughly ravaged by AIDS at the same time that they were starting to move more into the mainstream of society. Horrible a scourge as AIDS is, it did force straight Americans to examine their attitudes towards their gay neighbors and start to right the wrongs that had been inflicted on them. In America gay rights is still a work in progress, but that slow sea change had its beginnings in the early 1990’s, and articulate gays like McNally were moved to explain and explore their lives in public in ways that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades earlier.
Because many of the characters in Love! Valour! Compassion! are artists they each have moments in which they behave in that grand, passionate manner we associate with the artistic temperament. The title prepares you for that kind of behavior. These are men who punctuate the stories of their lives in exclamation points, not mere periods. But there are plenty of question marks along the way. Will Perry put on a tutu? Will John and James reconcile before James dies? Will Gregory finish choreographing his new dance? Will Ramon ever put his pants on?
I have to say that I agree with the character of John when, very early on in the play, he tells Ramon in no uncertain terms to stop waving his dick in everyone’s face. Not that he listens. Ramon is one of those people who likes to be naked, and luckily Fromeyer is a gentleman who looks good naked, which cannot be said for most people, male or female, young or old, gay or straight. In fact, this entire cast (only Fried and Adkins are allowed to refrain from baring it all), thankfully, is good eye-candy, and, with the exception of the exhibitionist Ramon, the nudity is handled with modesty and decorum. There is considerably more dorsal than frontal exposure, and many cunning postures that conceal the naughty parts are employed.
I have to say that, as a straight woman, I felt left out at this particular performance – and not by the playwright or the director or the actors, but by the rest of the audience. Apparently this play was extra hilariously funny and I didn’t get it. I mean I got the jokes, there were plenty of them and they were very funny, but they weren’t THAT funny. Every single punch line was greeted with HILARIOUS laughter. Are gay men just innately extra hilariously funny and no one bothered to tell me? Are straight people required to laugh extra hard at gay humor to show that we get it and that we’re not offended and that we really like gay people a whole lot? Would I have found the jokes more hilarious if I was gay, or a man, or an actor? I attended the official opening night where the audience was filled with theatre people and friends and relations of the actors. I suppose that it is pretty hysterical, in both senses of the word, to see your son or neighbor or spouse prancing about on stage stark naked or kissing another man or dancing “Swan Lake” in a white tutu. And I am certainly glad that everyone was having such a good time, but I found all that hilarity slightly forced and patronizing.
I would be fascinated to come back and see the show again with an average audience. I will be fascinated to hear how this show plays in Peoria, or in this case Stockbridge. Love! Valour! Compassion! is a bold choice for a summer theatre, and, I think, a worthy one. I hope the general ticket-buying public agrees.
Love! Valour! Compassion! runs through July 7 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (box office 413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs three and a half hours with two intermissions and is definitely "R" rated.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007
* By unanimous decision last year my sons voted that I, their mother, was secretly a gay man. It is now apparent that I am Buzz Hauser, except I don't have AIDS. Now I know that I am the balding one who wears red patent leather high-heels, a frilly apron, and sunglasses, and nothing else, while serving iced tea, which is fine with me, but what kind of a name is Buzz...?