BWW Review: LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! Captures the Zeitgeist
Love! Valour! Compassion!
Written by Terrence McNally, Direction & Scenic Design by David J. Miller; Costume Design, Elizabeth Cole Sheehan; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, Jay Mobley; Stage Manager, Kayla Heal
Performances through May 19th by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally won the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play and, although much has changed in the ensuing twenty-four years since it opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club, as a slice of gay life, it withstands the test of time. On each of the three major summer weekends, eight gay male friends gather at one's sprawling lakeside country house in Dutchess County to dish, dine, and dance. President Bill Clinton was in his first term, the AIDS epidemic infiltrated every aspect of the gay community, and the fragility of life weighed on the hearts and minds of these close friends.
Who better than David J. Miller and Zeitgeist Stage Company to present a contemporary production of McNally's play which captures the zeitgeist of the early 1990s? Miller directs a septet of actors who craft an ensemble work, an egalitarian troupe who support each other's efforts, much like a group of friends taking turns in the limelight. There is no lead character, per se, although there are characters with stronger personalities who take up more space or use up more of the available air in the room. As a result, there are times when some of the others fade into the background, and their storylines feel less compelling. Over the course of the run, this imbalance may work itself out.
In the meantime, Brooks Reeves gives a noteworthy performance in a dual role as twin brothers, a couple of Brits who are referred to by the group as James the Good and John the Bad, or, alternately, as Princes of Charm and Ugly. The siblings are like night and day, and Reeves makes it look easy to distinguish between them, altering his posture, his accent, and his facial expressions, with a slight assist from costume designer Elizabeth Cole Sheehan. The majority of his stage time is spent in the character of John, a failed musical theater composer who works as piano accompanist for their host Gregory's dance company. John's talent on the 88s is not enough to alleviate his bitterness and jealousy of others' professional accomplishments, nor his resentment of his brother's likability. Reeves portrays their differences by morphing from a stony scowl to an eager and open visage, appearing remarkably natural and comfortable in both personas, culminating in a powerful monologue when John and James "appear" simultaneously.
On the opposite end of the personality spectrum is Buzz (Jeremy Johnson), John's ex, who is flamboyantly stereotypical, loves musical theatre, and is living with AIDS. Johnson sashays around the stage in a series of garish outfits, employing a variety of effeminate affectations in body and speech, and makes his character's outlandishness an endearing quality (think Jack on "Will and Grace," only with a higher IQ). He has the job of providing much of the comic relief, but is capable of getting serious when the situation calls for it. Buzz is liked by all, even when he guilelessly speaks unwanted truths. Like most of the cast, Johnson is making his Zeitgeist Stage debut and fits the profile to become a regular.
Also a ZSC rookie, Cody Sloan takes on the challenging role of the visually-impaired Bobby, Gregory's 20-something boyfriend who is open and honest, until he isn't. In addition to his visual disability, Bobby struggles with infidelity and figuring out who he needs to be in a relationship. Sloan connects with Bobby's caring persona, his charm, and his fears, inhabiting the young man, warts and all, while maintaining the appropriate physicality to convince us of his blindness. He and David Anderson (Gregory) have some good moments in conveying their relationship, but the age difference (the latter in his forties) makes it inherently problematic. Gregory's protectiveness veers toward the paternalistic, but Anderson's actions are always informed by his character's underlying love for his partner.
McNally imbues each of his characters with a degree of vulnerability which makes them human and interesting. For Gregory, a successful Broadway choreographer, he fears that he is losing his creativity and feels his body breaking down. Coupled with his insecurity about his relationship with the much-younger Bobby, it is a devastating combination that plays out in all of his physical endeavors. Anderson's dance scenes convey remarkable pain, both physical and emotional, even as his movements and concentration authentically evoke the artist creating in his studio. His long-time friends and business associates, Arthur (Keith Foster) and Perry (Joey C. Pelletier), have been together for fourteen years, which is actually their vulnerability. It ain't easy being role models and both men take turns showing the strain of that burden.
The wild card in this deck of crazy eights is Ramon (Michael J. Blunt), John's new beau of three weeks vintage at the Memorial Day gathering. He is a dancer in awe of being in Gregory's presence, but he is also a hottie with a wandering eye and a bit of an exhibitionist (spoiler: there is a fair amount of male nudity onstage). He inveigles his way into the group by the only means available to him, but is never really one of them. He takes advantage of their desire, but knows that he is out of his element. Similarly, Blunt makes good use of his youth and attractiveness in the role, but lacks credibility as a dancer when Ramon takes a few turns on the floor while telling his back story, and metaphorically shows a lot of seams in his performance.
Love! Valour! Compassion! runs just under three hours with three acts and two intermissions. There are moments when it lags a little, but some of that is a reflection of the languorous nature of a weekend in the country, more so than Miller's pacing. In fact, he skillfully guides the ebb and flow between the funny and the poignant aspects of the play, keeping the focus on the men and what they discover about themselves and each other throughout the course of one uneventful summer.