I Love It, It's Perfect, Don't Change!
Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally
Directed by Anders Cato
Stage Manager, Marjorie Gallant
Designers: Hugh Landwehr (scenery), Laurie Churba (costumes), Jeff Davis (lighting), Scott Killian (composition and sound), Darrell Pucciarello (movement)
Performances through July 7, 2007 at Berkshire Theatre Festival
Box Office 413-298-5576 or www.berkshiretheatre.org
The Berkshire Theatre Festival opens its 79th season with Love! Valour! Compassion! directed by Anders Cato. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Terrence McNally's 1995 Tony Award-winning play is how unremarkable it all seems today. Oh, I don't mean the play itself, which is outstanding. Rather, I mean that the account of eight gay male friends who gather for three summer holiday weekends at a lakeside house is neither a curiosity nor controversial. Thanks to Ellen DeGeneres, "Will and Grace," and even "Queer As Folk," homosexual stories have become homogenized, out of the closet and into the mainstream.
Having said that, Love! (etc.) has an edginess and a healthy dose of nudity to keep things vibrant throughout the three acts. It also has a cast of seven talented actors (one plays twin brothers) who wear their characters like a second skin. Each and every one of them seems as comfortable in their roles as they are with frolicking about the stage in their birthday suits. Although they often disregard the fourth wall to speak to the audience, they are unselfconscious when they shed their clothes or show physical affection to each other, as if there is no one watching. As a result, we get an intimate and genuine look into their lives and relationships, including the humor and the pathos.
The story is set in the summer of 1994 at a remote house in Dutchess County, two hours north of New York City. As the owner and host, aging choreographer Gregory Mitchell (Romain Fruge) excitedly, but with a halting stammer, tells the history of and expresses his love for the place where we will while away the next few hours. McNally employs an interesting mix of narration, dialogue, and action to take us on an emotional journey with these men as they deal with their hopes and dreams, fears and desires, love and betrayal, and AIDS.
Gregory also loves Bobby (Matthew Wilkas), his partner of four years. Bobby is younger and very good-looking, but he is blind and sees the internal beauty of Gregory. Arthur (James Lloyd Reynolds) and Perry (Jonathan Fried) are a study in the complex nature of long-time companions as they celebrate their 14th anniversary. Perry's former roommate and dear friend Buzz (Stephen DeRosa) is the sick one in the group. While currently single, he used to be with the Englishman John (David Adkins) and is defined by his fanatical love for musical theatre. John is sardonic, unabashedly reads Gregory's journal, and is not well liked, but he plays a mean piano. As John's guest (read: boy toy) for the weekends, Ramon (Ricky Fromeyer) is new to the mix and the young, buff Puerto Rican adds quite a bit of spice. John's twin James (Adkins) is his polar opposite, most genial and pleasant, but he also has AIDS. There is a swift and understandable bonding between Buzz and James that provides some of the sweetest moments in the play. All of McNally's characters are multi-dimensional and what I really like about each of them is their humanness. He uses them as examples of human frailty, as well as human kindness. Even the guy we view with disdain shows some human qualities by the end of the Labor Day weekend.
With Hugh Landwehr's raked stage, there are several occasions when our attention is split between what is happening upstage and a conversation downstage. In an early scene, one man is downstage betraying his lover who is sleeping upstage. In another, a trio chats on the beach in the foreground while a duo flirtatiously banter with each other on the distant raft, emulated by a raised section of the floor. The stage is actually quite bare with only a modicum of props to insinuate a car, the bedrooms, a tennis match, or canoeing on the lake. It is up to the audience to imagine the rest, and we do so with ease because McNally's words and dialogue are masterful.
There are no stars in this octet, but Gregory is the moral center. Fruge quietly astounds, showing the struggle of being blocked creatively, face to face with age and diminishing skills - the heart is willing, but the body balks - and swallowing his disappointments with such class and dignity that he becomes a role model. Buzz could be a stereotype, but DeRosa gives him so much charm and self-effacing intelligence that he represents the beating heart of this body. One of the best sight gags features him strutting out on stage, perched atop bright red high heels, wearing oversized Elton John-like sunglasses, a bib apron, and, well, that's all. David Adkins has two shots at a great performance and hits them both between the eyes. At the start of Act III he is called upon to be onstage as James and John in conversation together. Seated as the former, at once relaxed and bemused, he explains the impending dialogue with his twin. He rises slowly and, with a stiffening of his posture and a hardening of his countenance, voila! - he morphs from good to bad.
What seems on the surface to be a light comedy gets into some pretty dark places, but the playwright entertains at the same time as he explores the serious and complex themes. Most of the issues could be addressed in any play about friends and relationships, gay or straight, but I think the all-male Swan Lake number, complete with white tutus and headpieces, depicts a slice of this life. As for the parsing of the title, discovering the love is the easy part. Romantic, brotherly, love of one's art, you name it and it's in here. And there are numerous definitions of valour that apply to the people and events portrayed, but I think that heart and spirit are most resonant. Compassion describes their concern for each other in this, their chosen extended family. They may bicker, they may squabble, and they may even covet somebody else's partner, but it all comes back to family. McNally, Cato, and these seven fine actors make it believable. I didn't want to leave these guys, but there's always next summer.