Terrence McNally’s last two plays –“A Perfect Ganesh” and “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”– revealed a playwright preoccupied with spiritual matters and death. Both are also in evidence in “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” and there’s a great deal of humor, too. All of the writing is heartfelt, some of it even beautiful, though such disparate elements rarely blend together smoothly.
More problematic — and I concede this to be as much my problem as McNally’s — is that he is a writer in whose world I once felt welcome, or at least tolerated, and that’s no longer the case. At “Love! Valour! Compassion!” I may as well have been from Mars. McNally wittily anticipates this complaint early on when the play’s most flamboyant character, a costume-maker and AIDS activist who has the bad fortune to be HIV-positive but the good fortune to be played by Nathan Lane, declares: “I’m sick of straight people. Tell the truth, aren’t you? There’s too goddamn many of them. I was in the bank yesterday.
They were everywhere. Writing checks, making deposits. Two of them were applying for a mortgage. It was disgusting. They’re taking over. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s true.”
This is, of course, a mirror image of how many straight people will respond to “Love! Valour! Compassion!” whose world is exclusively gay and unabashedly in-your-face about it. The play takes place over three long summer weekends at the lakeside country house of a laureled danc-
er/choreographer named Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), and Bobby, his beautiful young lover (Justin Kirk), who is blind.
The first of the three acts — Memorial Day — begins with thehosts and their guests, all men, softly singing “Beautiful Dreamer.” The idyll is quickly shattered when Bobby allows himself to be seduced by Ramon (Randy Becker), a predatory young dancer brought by John Jeckyll (John Glover), a chilly, mean Brit who once wrote a musical that flopped in London and New York and who’s now consigned to the role of Gregory’s rehearsal pianist.
The other house guests include Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) and Perry (Stephen Spinella), who have been together 14 years (“We’re role models,” Perry says. “It’s very stressful.”) and, later, John’s “good” twin brother — note their surname — James (doubled wonderfully by Glover), who is dying of AIDS.
At the center of it all is Buzz (Lane), Gregory’s costumer, a former lover of John and roommate of Perry, a lonely man whose mission is to find a cure for AIDS and defend the primacy of the Broadway musical againstadvancing obsolescence.
Through the July Fourth and Labor Day acts, Gregory struggles to come up with a new dance to premiere as an AIDS benefit, and with the effects of mortality on his aging dancer’s body (to make matters worse, he’s saddled with an extremely annoying speech impediment).
John reads Gregory’s journal. Bobby’s sister is killed in a freak accident at a religious amusement park in India. Buzz and James fall in love. They take turns reading from a book purporting to out everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Dan Rather and John Kennedy Jr.
Buzz gets most of the wicked lines — it’s a field day for Lane — along with some of the fuzzier rants; near the play’s end he spins a riff on Melina Mercouri’s speech in “Never on Sunday” about tragedies actually having happy endings because the audience applauds and the actors go home: “Once, just once, I’d like to see a ‘West Side Story’ where Tony really gets it,” Buzz says, “…’A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ where the only thing that happens is nothing and it’s not funny and they all go down waiting … waiting for death, like everyone I know and care about is, including me … but they don’t write musicals like that anymore.” When did they?
Death permeates “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” and in Joe Mantello’s poetic staging its elegiac moments have an eloquent sadness.
Loy Arcenas’ spare set suggests the house and lake, with Brian MacDevitt’s beautiful lighting going a long way toward creating the languid atmosphere.
The second act begins with the men singing “In the Good Old Summertime,” and by the third act, no song seems capable of lifting the spirits. Not, that is, until after they have donned white tutus and danced the “Pas des Cygnes” from “Swan Lake” and announced, one by one, how and when they will die, finally joining in “Shine On, Harvest Moon” as they strip for one last swim in the pre-autumnal night. It’s all the more moving because this ensemble is so fine.
But I have to admit that little else in the play moved me, and a lot of it was irritating. Call me prissy, but it’s hard to warm to a play that offers “It’s like Adolf Hitler shtupping Anne Frank!” as a laugh line, or a scene in which one man, peering into another’s rear, wonders, “I don’t suppose you want to get married?”
As with “Lips Together” and “A Perfect Ganesh”– not to mention his book for “Kiss of the Spider Woman”– one questions McNally’s taste even as one can appreciate the spirit and even the craft of his work.
I felt aggressively excluded, my sympathies spurned, and I doubt I’ll be alone in that reaction.