Daniel Mays in “Hero”

What begins as a study of gay (self-)acceptance broadens into a more troubling analysis of power and people's capacity for change.

Danny, played by the ebullient Liam Garrigan, turns on the ceaselessly self-justifying Jamie (Daniel Mays) and yells, “You’re not in charge.” His climactic accusation speaks to the heart of E.V. Crowe’s new play “Hero.” What begins as a study of gay (self-)acceptance broadens into a more troubling analysis of power and people’s capacity for change. If content and form are less meshed than in her debut “Kin,” Crowe’s unsettling handling of tension and admirably idiosyncratic imagery remain powerful.

The first half of “Hero” is told from the home, and perspective, of elementary school teacher Danny. Out to the staff at his school, he lives with his more conservative husband Joe (Tim Steed), and they are a long way down the line towards adopting a child.

None of this is technically a problem for straight fellow teacher Jamie, one of Joe’s oldest friends. Yet when Jamie pitches up to discuss the fallout from his handling of a moment in which a 7-year-old accused him of being gay, tensions begin to mount beneath the veneer of understanding and civility. And when Jamie subsequently returns after having been physically attacked, power roles are fascinatingly switched with the straight man clinging to victim status.

The angle is then reversed in the more darkly atmospheric second half. Running scenes from the first act time-frame, but this time from the home and perspective of Jamie and his partner Lisa (unflappable Susannah Wise), the drama is increased for audiences who, unlike the characters, know what is about to happen.

Issues of control are raised in heated exchanges in which none of the positions are simplistic. Danny’s “heroism” in deciding to out himself to his young pupils is called into question not by the straights but by his husband Joe who, for the sake of the adoption, insists they “act normal.” But, surprisingly, the contradictions of the subsidiary characters Joe and pregnant Lisa are stated but uninvestigated.

The most complex character is Jamie, whose increasing distress and frustration gradually dominate the play. Mays brings alarming anger to the role — he seems to sweat pain. Yet, as “the most gay straight man at college,” he is miscast, which unbalances proceedings. The character’s difficulties with his gay friends and their status makes for increased intensity but it also makes his friends’ acceptance of his views feel unnatural. Thus, despite typically meticulous direction by Jeremy Herrin, the energy of major scenes dominated by Jamie’s intransigence occasionally falters.

Jamie gets the lion’s share of the most audacious writing. It’s to their immense credit that both Crowe and Mays make Jamie’s pathological recourse to listening to and singing along to Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” as telling as it is bizarre.

Beneath the surface debates about pupils — and, by extension, people — being carefully and not so carefully taught, Crowe is making an urgent argument about the necessity for everyone to embrace change. The superficial nature of mere tolerance is what leads to Jamie’s downfall.

Hero

Royal Court Upstairs, London; 87 seats; £20, $32 top

Production

A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in two acts by E. V. Crowe. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. Sets and costumes, Mike Britton; lighting, Rick Fisher; sound, Ian Dickinson; production stage manager, Bonnie Morris. Opened, reviewed Nov. 29, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Danny - Liam Garrigan
Joe - Tim Steed
Jamie - Daniel Mays
Lisa - Susannah Wise

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