BOTTOM LINE: A talented British cast, taut direction, and ingenious dramatic structure outweigh flaws to create a cathartic and uplifting theater experience.
Discouraged by the endless fight over marriage rights and the on-again-off-again repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell?" Take heart! Theaters are currently full of gay-themed period pieces reminding us just how far we've come. There's The Temperamentals, about the fitful gay rights movement of the early '50's (read Theasy review). And the latest revival of The Boys in the Band, the 1968 textbook of gay self-loathing. Film offers us A Single Man, based on the '64 story by Christopher Isherwood, a pioneer of gay themes.
Add to that roster The Pride, a recent English arrival, given a first-class production by MCC Theater. The Pride is Alexi Kaye Campbell's first play, but it has prestige written all over it. It premiered at London's cutting-edge Royal Court Theatre. The director is the mega-successful Joe Mantello. The stars are two young British heartthrobs, Ben Whishaw and Hugh Dancy. And the theme? You guessed it—gay history!
The Pride takes place in London in both 1958 and 2008, and follows four men, two named Oliver (Whishaw) and two named Philip (Dancy) through the minefield of gay life then and now. Oliver '58 is an author of children's books and discreetly - though obviously - gay. Oliver '08 is a compulsively promiscuous gay journalist unable to remain faithful to his most recent boyfriend Philip. Philip '08 is a photojournalist about whom we learn unfortunately little (a big flaw in the story). Phillip '58 is a married, closeted man whose shame over his affair with Oliver sends him running for crude aversion therapy.
The two stories are adroitly intertwined, and The Pride has a lot about it that is fresh and original. Still, it kept reminding me of other gay plays and stories: Angels in America, Maurice, Brokeback Mountain, The Last Sunday in June, Bent, even Jeffrey. Perhaps it's to be expected that any gay play will rely on familiar tropes: a gay pride parade ("Is it a march, a demonstration or a celebration?"); a distraught homosexual asking a doctor to cure his "affliction"; a man-on-man rape; a Nazi (!); and, yes, that old standby, the abiding friendship between an acerbic gay man and a wacky straight woman.
The Pride ends up being more than the sum of its predictable parts, however, and there are many riveting moments. The first scene, which the actors perform at breakneck pace while remaining totally at ease and conveying a world of subtext, is an exhilarating marvel of stagecraft.
I have to admit to a decided preference for the 1958 storyline, which is compelling precisely because the characters (and actors) are required to convey more while saying less. Repression makes for great drama. However, the relationship between Oliver '08 and his gal pal Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough) is surprisingly moving. And an '08 TV producer named Peter (Adam James) is one of the most engaging straight characters in a gay play since…well maybe ever.
Despite progress, we're nowhere near living in a "post-gay" world. Pieces that remind us of our shared - and often tragic - history are still important. The philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." For us gays, there's no chance of that this season.
(The Pride plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, through March 28, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Call Ticket Central at 212.279.4200 or go to Ticket Central at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, or at www.ticketcentral.com.)