The definitive moment in Diversionary Theatre's current Love! Valour! Compassion! occurs after the show, when the cast takes its curtain call in robes bearing one of those intratwined red ribbons. Patterned after a yellow counterpart issued in support of America's Gulf War militia, the shiny little band has become the international symbol of solidarity in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Make no mistake: This production contains some wonderful ensemble theater, with its cadenced narratives, crackling dialogue and stellar performances by Dennis J. Scott and co-director Tim Irving (Sean Murray is also at the helm). And while there's nothing inventive about the play's three-act construction, the story stays on point despite its three-hour running time. Playwright Terrence McNally strategizes well, fluidly dotting the action with the AIDS theme as eight gay men convene over three summertime holidays at a lakeside retreat.
AIDS was a polarizing sociopolitical issue in 1994, the year this play won a Tony. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that year the virus killed nearly 42,000 white American men between ages 22 and 44, the leading cause of death among that group. That's why, for all its editorial excellence, Love! Valour! Compassion! is vaguely out of the moment. Rather than exploring the phenomenon behind the statistics, the play stops at the depiction of a lifestyle as the men's interrelationships blossom and evaporate.
As the lake house itself exists in isolation, so do the joy and angst of its occupants-and up on the stage, that ubiquitous red ribbon becomes slightly less a beacon of global unity than an actor-friendly afterthought.
McNally's wit is matched by his economy of language, which sets the tone for the breadth of his collective. There's Gregory, an aging choreographer who shares his waterside home with virginal boyfriend Bobby, who's blind; Perry and Arthur, two staid professional men marking their 14th anniversary together; and Ramon, who plays rambunctious flirt to partner John's bitter misogynist. Buzz (Irving) is comic relief for the lot of 'em-fat and ungainly, he can recite the lyrics from any Broadway musical at the drop of a hat and thinks that every Shakespearean character except Titus Andronicus is gay.
He forges a rare intimacy with James, who is John's twin and the only one of the eight to whom everybody takes a shine (Scott plays both roles). James' bravery in light of his illness confounds his hateful brother ("You got the good soul; I got the bad one," John snorts) and fuels Buzz's fright over the prospect of his own lonely demise. Even as Perry and Arthur (Dan Gruber and Joshua Harrell) remain monogamous, Gregory (Manuel J. Fernandez) and Bobby (Vincent Smetana) face the latter's infidelity and emerge stronger, despite the antics of hot-blooded firebrand Ramon (Jeremiah M. Maestas).
But while this motley fraternity rolls well with McNally's whims, it also paints a pretty exclusive picture. McNally would have us believe that life's turmoil is a solely gay purview; he and the play offer little spin (in spite of the abundant full nudity) to gain the straight community's attention. How far more globally appealing is Jonathan Larson's Rent. Its heterosexual leads beckon those of like persuasion into the action, populated by a slate of gay characters who freely share the principals' hope, disillusionment and pain.
In critiquing the movie adaptation of LVC, Roger Ebert praised McNally's screenplay, noting its sensitive portrayal of homosexuals rather than its preoccupation with homosexuality. " ...[T]he point is not how they make love," he wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997, "but simply how they love or fail to love."
Roger's right about that. And that's precisely the problem. Today's gay agenda is characterized by political progressiveness on a few important fronts, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada and the prospect of similar legislation in Hawaii and Massachusetts. Such efforts in the U.S. will likely lumber along for eons as every state chooses (or not) to take its turn.
All the while, Love! Valour! Compassion! lacks specifics about the nature of the group that such debates will (or will not) target. This staging is indeed a well-mounted entry-if only it were a more forthcoming account