'The Pride'

Play moves gracefully from humor to melancholy intensity, from tart insight to tender observation.

One of the more provocative points to emerge from Alexi Kaye Campbell’s contemplative debut play about emotional isolation, love and the evolution of gay identity is that liberation is not always freeing. Juxtaposing triangular relationships in 1958 and 2008, before and after the sexual revolution, “The Pride” moves gracefully from humor to melancholy intensity, from tart insight to tender observation. Joe Mantello’s pellucid production makes fluid poetry of those mercurial transitions and the frequent temporal shifts, while his gifted cast suggests every painful undercurrent of denial and self-deception with equal clarity.

Winner of a string of new-writing awards last season in London, “The Pride” introduces former actor Campbell as a playwright of considerable maturity and structural elegance. He enfolds his flawed characters and their many ambiguities in an empathetic embrace, without in the least sentimentalizing them.

The production also marks a tremendous New York debut for Ben Whishaw, whose sensitive work in films like “Bright Star” barely hints at the actor’s riveting stage presence. His quicksilver performance is unnervingly unguarded one minute, then coolly detached and self-deprecating the next; his wiry, physically expressive body conveys extreme opposites of awkward fragility and languid sensuality yet clearly welds them to the same complex personality. But to talk up Whishaw’s work too much would be to undervalue the three superb fellow British actors sharing the stage with him.

Mantello establishes his assured grasp of the material from the outset. The clipped formalities and strained bonhomie of the opening scene point to the parched climate of 1950s British reserve that masks most genuine feeling.

Children’s book author Oliver (Whishaw) has been invited by illustrator Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough) to meet her husband, Philip (Hugh Dancy), over dinner. An unexpected candor creeps into the conversation, as Philip confesses the dissatisfaction of his lackluster life selling real estate, and his unfulfilled wish to emigrate. Well-traveled Oliver also bares his soul, recounting a personal epiphany in Delphi that foretold a future free from anxiety and fear.

Despite Philip’s prickliness, there’s a distinct whiff of sexual tension between the two men. And for all Sylvia’s brisk charm and breezy command of the situation, that frisson hasn’t escaped her attention.

Fast-forward 50 years and another version of Oliver is stripped to his Calvin Kleins, on his knees before a Nazi commandant (Adam James). In less skilled hands, this might seem an outre shock tactic, but Campbell uses the scene to dispense with exposition. With swiftness and wit, he reveals that despite his longing for a committed relationship, contempo Oliver is addicted to anonymous sex — the more humiliating the better.

The Nazi is a role-playing rent boy who unleashes his not-so-inner drama queen during an awkward encounter with Oliver’s ex-boyfriend, Philip, back to retrieve the last of his belongings. Counsel for despondent but unrepentant Oliver is provided by his friend Sylvia, whose longstanding emotional-support role is beginning to feel cramped now that she’s in a promising relationship.

All three principal actors excel at creating both distinct selves and indelible connections in their two sets of characters, and Mantello artfully plays with that overlap in transitions during which characters from one time frame linger into the next. The precision intimacy of Paul Gallo’s lighting and the personalized style of Mattie Ulrich’s costumes enhance the seamlessness between the two studies.

In act one, David Zinn’s economical living-room set functions as both mid-century modern and contemporary retro-chic. In the second act, the designer replaces the furniture with utilitarian benches, while the mirrored rear panels become transparent, allowing for heightened illumination of the parallels between the two periods.

Humor is a constant in the play and in its sparkling dialogue, but there are a number of powerful scenes. Notable among them is 1950s Philip’s move to terminate his inevitable affair with Oliver. Even at his most affable, Dancy is wound tight with the discomfort of suppressing his true nature. He bristles with conflicted feelings as the mood switches from hostility to desperation to violence to cold dismissal. The actor’s ability to convey the longing beneath his harsh behavior is especially moving, and the raw directness of Whishaw’s reactions gives the scene an arresting brutality.

Quieter moments are no less effective, such as Sylvia gingerly tiptoeing around a discussion with her husband of his distaste for men with “a manner” about them. Her hushed pronouncement of the word “homosexual” reminds us how far removed from polite conversation this was back then.

Distinguished by a self-knowledge that rivals even the contemporary characters, 1950s Sylvia is the play’s most surprising figure, free from all traces of the usual bitterness. Riseborough shows glimmers of compassion and enormous dignity beneath every ounce of hurt and every caustic observation. The character’s experience as a former actress adds nobility to her performance as the contented wife. But the poignancy of her solitude runs deep, as does the kinship it fosters with Oliver, which almost outweighs his betrayal. A wrenching scene in which she confronts him with her knowledge of the affair is exquisitely played.

In scenes that puncture the tense dynamic among the main trio in interesting ways, James makes an incisive impression in each of his three roles. In addition to the huffy hustler, he brings icy clinical detachment to an aversion therapist preparing 1950s Philip for treatment. And he’s hilarious as a brashly crude magazine editor in the present day, assigning Oliver to write a “gay is cool” piece which demystifies homo-hedonism for the straight reader.

Campbell shows insight into the soul-destroying invisibility of pre-liberation homosexual life, with all its guilt and shame, its cautious euphemisms and fearful self-censorship. He also makes sharp, if not particularly new, points about constricting aspects of current-day gay life — the obsession with looks and body image; the challenge of living monogamously in a culture of readily available sex. And while there could be greater cohesion, the sense of one generation’s suffering infecting the liberties of the next is clear.

There are some contrived aspects in the playwright’s resolution of his twin scenarios. But the wealth of ideas and authenticity of feeling in both the writing and performances continue to resonate after the conclusion. With a well-received second play (“Apologia”) already under his belt in the U.K., Campbell is a talent to watch, and in this sleek, smart production, New York audiences get a memorable first taste of his work.

The Pride

Lucille Lortel Theater; 299 seats; $95 top

Production

An MCC Theater presentation, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Foundation, of a play in two acts by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Directed by Joe Mantello.

Creative

Sets, David Zinn; costumes, Mattie Ullrich; lighting, Paul Gallo; original music, Justin Ellington; sound, Jill DuBoff; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons. Opened Feb. 16, 2010. Reviewed Feb. 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Philip - Hugh Dancy Doctor, Man, Peter - Adam James Sylvia - Andrea Riseborough Oliver - Ben Whishaw

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