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Love! Valour! Compassion!

Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" is a play about the fragility of both life and love, and how we marshal the forces heralded in the title to combat -- or come to terms with -- their evanescence. But alongside its mainly elegiac melody runs the very durable music of comedy; though it didn't rate mention in the title, wit, too, is a weapon against the vicissitudes of life that's wielded with great force here.

With:
Cast: William Bumiller (Gregory Mitchell), Richard Bekins (Arthur Pape), T. Scott Cunningham (Perry Sellars), Ian Ogilvy (John Jeckyll, James Jeckyll), Mario Cantone (Buzz Hauser), Mitchell Anderson (Bobby Brahms), Randy Becker (Ramon Fornos).

Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” is a play about the fragility of both life and love, and how we marshal the forces heralded in the title to combat — or come to terms with — their evanescence. But alongside its mainly elegiac melody runs the very durable music of comedy; though it didn’t rate mention in the title, wit, too, is a weapon against the vicissitudes of life that’s wielded with great force here.

The Geffen Playhouse production boasts much of the creative team behind the original staging, most significantly director Joe Mantello, whose work here is even more graceful than in the play’s New York outing — and it was a marvel of elegance then. He has a painter’s eye for visual space — he’s aided in this respect by the vibrant colors of Loy Arcenas’ lovely, spare set — sure control of a seven-member ensemble (he’s an actor himself) and a musical sense of rhythm.

That trait is particularly apt, since the play takes place at the country home of choreographer Gregory Mitchell (William Bumiller) and his younger lover Bobby (Mitchell Anderson), over three summer holiday weekends during which they play host to an extended family of friends — all gay men — who include the button-down couple Arthur (Richard Bekins) and Perry (T. Scott Cunningham), a lawyer and accountant who have been together for 14 years — several millennia by the standards of their group, as they wryly note; the chronically lovelorn Buzz Hauser (Mario Cantone), whose preternatural devotion to Broadway musical lore mystifies most of his friends; the pinched British pianist John Jeckyll (Ian Ogilvy), poisoned by the failure of his one attempt at a musical; and Jeckyll’s new lover Ramon (Randy Becker), a dancer whose aggressive sexuality is the unknown element that will threaten the bonds of love and allegiance that tie these men together.

And despite the rarefied air of artistic accomplishment that pervades their interaction — references to the Wesendonck Lieder vie with those to “Damn Yankees” — these men are living in desperate times, when bonds of affection may be the only certainty they know, and health is as terrifyingly changeable as the summer weather.

Although only Buzz and John’s rather nicer twin brother James, who arrives in act two, are afflicted with AIDS, all are haunted by the shadow of what might have been, or might be yet around the corner. (“I will always feel like a bystander at the genocide of who we are,” Perry says.)

As the summer wears on, the mettle of these friends’ affection is brought to light by various incidents: a secret seduction, a death in Bobby’s family, the veiled and not so veiled antagonisms among the group that bring out both the best and the worst in them, and the tenuous health and growing love that Buzz and James come to share.

McNally covers some fairly wide emotional territory with the delicate touch that marks all his best work, and he has never been wittier than here. “Is there a British equivalent for machismo?” Buzz asks John. “No. None at all. Maybe Glenda Jackson.”

A discordant note is struck only once, when McNally makes a cursory, feeble feint in the direction of Tony Kushner-esque political engagement: Perry flicks on CNN, watches some gay demonstrators being bullied, and rants, “They hate us. They fucking hate us. It never ends, the fucking hatred.” End of subject. And after three hours, we may also feel that the finale, when the cast don tutus to rehearse a dance for an AIDS benefit, doesn’t make up in loopy charm what it lacks in dramatic heft.

But the cast does not let us feel the occasional longueur for long. Cantone, who has the unfortunate task of having to play the Nathan Lane role without being Nathan Lane, gives a smashingly funny performance; he has made the part his own, though his grasp of the more wrenching moments is still unsure.

Ogilvy’s icy turn as the evil twin John is more impressive still when we see how easily he sheds his hauteur to play John’s sweet, ailing brother. Bekins and Cunningham are talented actors nicely matched; their interaction has all the authentic notes of a 14-year intimacy. Bumiller and Becker are also fine, but Anderson, playing the blind Bobby, comes up a little short at times.

“Love! Valour! Compassion!” may ultimately lack the tautness that would give it the urgency of the best dramatic work — its subjects are too many, its themes too diverse — but Mantello’s production goes a long way toward making up for this through a beautiful use of synchronicity.

Scenes fold into each other seamlessly; actions and words in one exchange are echoed in a scene being played on the other side of the stage. It enhances the sense of connection between the characters, and that’s just what they are striving for.

Mantello has also directed Fine Line’s feature film of the play, set to be released next year. He will be hard-pressed to improve upon his work here.

Love! Valour! Compassion!

Geffen Playhouse, Westwood; 499 seats; $37.50 top

Production: Geffen Playhouse in association with Manhattan Theatre Club presents a play in three acts by Terrence McNally. Directed by Joe Mantello.

Creative: Sets, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, John Kilgore; choreography, John Carrafa; casting, Pat McCorkle; production stage manager, James T. McDermott. Opened, reviewed Dec. 11, 1996; runs through Jan. 26. Running time: 3 hours, 10 min.

Cast: Cast: William Bumiller (Gregory Mitchell), Richard Bekins (Arthur Pape), T. Scott Cunningham (Perry Sellars), Ian Ogilvy (John Jeckyll, James Jeckyll), Mario Cantone (Buzz Hauser), Mitchell Anderson (Bobby Brahms), Randy Becker (Ramon Fornos).

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