Hushabye Mountain” isn’t the first Jonathan Harvey play to need severe editing, but neither is it the first to display an invaluable authorial strength that can’t be edited out: genuine heart. For all that’s rambling and even dated about the play — as well as awkward about Paul Miller’s production for English Touring Theater — one never doubts either the empathy that propels it forward or Harvey’s deeply unfashionable (at least in England) ability to hold out some prospect of hope amid his characters’ various descents into hell.
Just 30, and with six plays behind him in almost as many years, Harvey has never before tackled issues of HIV and AIDS in his ongoing chronicle of young gay men at varying stages of self-awareness. (His bittersweet “Beautiful Thing” is currently running Off Broadway.) Audience members familiar with Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner’s approaches to the same subject may find “Hushabye Mountain” too familiar — old-fashioned, even — to take seriously. But that’s to ask Harvey to be a kind of writer that he clearly doesn’t aim to be, which is why whimsy and camp are the prevailing tendencies here rather than anger, intellect, and politically fueled unrest.
The play’s (and production’s) tendency toward feyness is evident from the start in the glitter-dust — not to mention the twinkly sounds of the bird lady from Mary Poppins — that accompany the appearance of Beryl (Elizabeth Estensen), mother of Danny (Andrew Lincoln), who has recently died of AIDS.
Beryl is later reincarnated as (who else?) Judy Garland in one of several fantasias that come across as inadvertently lowbrow parodies of the ghostly visitations in Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love.” Perhaps Harvey felt compelled to put a fresh structural spin on what remains — all too tragically — an unsurprising story.
Whatever the reasons for it, the formal adventurousness of “Hushabye Mountain” is the least satisfying element of the play: Harvey is on firmer ground when his characters descend from the clouds, though anyone expecting a let-up from camp doesn’t know this writer’s fondness for musicals.
In flashbacks, we see Danny’s relationship with the young lad Connor (Stuart Laing), whose bluntly spoken courier of a brother Lee (David Kennedy, sounding as if he had stepped out of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”) is marrying Danny’s middle-class best friend, Lana (Rose Keegan). While Danny’s mother goes none-too-quietly gaga, the action switches between Connor’s memories of his late boyfriend and his attempts six months after Danny’s death to start afresh with Ben (Nick Bagnall), an HIV-positive Buddhist who is auditioning for a Theater-in-Education play about AIDS.
At times, “Hushabye Mountain” steps right into the sentimental. (Can we have a moratorium, please, on Pachelbel?) At others, it’s more immediately likable than Jackie Brooks’ somewhat laborious physical design (all sliding panels and fluffy clouds) lets on. And among a cast who keep their naturalistic wits about them (Kennedy is particularly winning) even when the writing wafts into the ether, Keegan makes a piece of performance art out of the grieving, coke-snorting friend. Like the bursts of feeling in a play that needs heavy pruning, Keegan on this evidence is an original who just won’t settle for the mundane.