Love! Valour! Compassion!
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
November 18, 2005
Although all but one of the eight characters in Terrence McNally’s lyrical play Love! Valour! Compassion! happen to be white men (the other is a Puerto Rican man), they are drawn in such loving detail, both their beauties and their flaws, that the play is an excellent choice for an acting studio to feature the skills of its students. Although the performances aren’t uniformly successful, T. Schreiber Studio’s current production is a great opportunity to revisit McNally’s gorgeous 1994 work.
Love! Valour! Compassion! tells the story of seven gay male friends who spend the three major holiday weekends of one summer—Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day—together at an upstate New York house. The house belongs to Gregory, a successful choreographer now approaching middle age, and his twentysomething lover, Bobby, who happens to be blind. The friends who spend the summer holidays at Gregory and Bobby’s house each are connected to Gregory’s dance work in one way or another: Arthur and longtime partner Perry are business consultants; John Jeckyll, a sour Englishman, is a dance accompanist; die-hard musical theater fanatic Buzz Hauser is a costume designer. Only John’s summer lover, Ramon Fornos, and his twin brother, James Jeckyll, are outside of the circle of friends. But Ramon is outgoing (to say the least) and eventually makes a place for himself in the group, and James is such a gentle soul that he is quickly welcomed.
McNally doesn’t focus on a single central plotline, but rather interweaves several motifs as the men use the long weekend holidays as an opportunity to consider their lives, confront each other, strengthen old relationships, and forge new ones. Gregory is facing an artistic crisis: he isn’t inspired and his body is losing the strength and flexibility he had as a young dancer. To add to his midlife troubles, his lover Bobby isn’t resisting the newcomer Ramon’s advances. Arthur and Perry are still discovering new things they like and dislike about each other even after many years of being together. HIV-positive Buzz puts on a happy face to disguise his inner loneliness and fear; by the end of the play, though, he may have found someone with whom to share some tenderness in James Jeckyll, who also is ill. John Jeckyll learns that being a mean-spirited jerk eventually comes back to bite you, but in the end even he participates as accompanist for a cathartic group performance of Swan Lake. Here McNally has crafted a wonderfully complex and beautiful moment: the men drop their differences and disputes to come together and dance; the fact that they are grown men in tutus is beside the point.
Top honors here go to director Glenn Krutoff and set designer Eddy Trotter. Krutoff’s staging is as fluid and graceful as McNally’s interweaving of the story’s multiple relationships, and he clearly has a lot of affection for the play and for these characters. I do wish, though, that Krutoff had guided his actors to give McNally’s finely crafted language its full due; many of the dialogue’s finer but revealing subtleties are skimmed over. It’s true that this great playwright’s dialogue sounds deceptively casual and conversational, but there is no doubt that he chooses each word with great care, with the end result being rich, complex characters who are the sum of the words they use, so we must hear and understand them all.
Eddy Trotter’s setting for Love! Valour! Compassion! is ingeniously simple: building blocks that make up a miniature version of Gregory and Bobby’s summer house at the top of the show are rearranged to form a car interior, a dining room table, and a kitchen island with a sink. Sections of walls which surround the bi-level stage become beds, and, surprisingly, a floating raft in the middle of a lake. This is the model (no pun intended) of intelligent, appropriate theatrical design for a small space; Trotter’s work is clever and dramatic, but never distracts from the telling of the story.
Though each actor seems dedicated to the ensemble spirit of the show, the performances are a mixed bag. As Gregory Mitchell, John Lederer nails the soulful, wise qualities of the group’s summer host (not to mention the challenge of the difficult stutter built into the dialogue), but doesn’t quite mine the depths of the emotional life of a dancer past his prime. Collin McGee is convincing as Bobby, Gregory's blind lover. Gary Cowling’s turn as Buzz Hauser is hilariously pouty and also moving in the moments where McNally reveals the deep loneliness just below the surface. Sebastian LaCause is terrific as the flirty dancer Ramon. LaCause is a smart actor, and sometimes comes off as a little too smart as Ramon, but with his model’s good looks, great comic skills, and full commitment to Ramon’s exhibitionist tendencies*, it’s still a satisfying performance. Peter Sloan gives a nuanced performance as Perry, and while Terry Wynne is a likable actor, his portrayal of Arthur isn’t always in line with references to the character’s demeanor in the script.
The primary disappointment of the evening is Kenneth John McGregor’s performance as the Jeckyll brothers John and James. McGregor seems focused on the sound of his voice, and though it is a resonant voice with an authentic-sounding British accent (for all I know McGregor is British; his program bio doesn’t say), it mainly is all breathy bluster, whether he’s spewing bitter insults as John or giggling coyly as James. This wouldn’t be a problem if McGregor made consistent and clear sense of the dialogue, but unfortunately, by taking odd pauses in the middle of phrases and rushing carelessly through others, it mostly just “sounds” important but doesn’t communicate much meaning. It’s a performance that isn’t quite in tune with the others, but ultimately it doesn’t really diminish the evening’s pleasures. Besides, the main reason to see this Love! Valour! Compassion! is to revisit Terrence McNally’s wonderful love letter to friendship and the families we choose and that choose us.
* As the play requires—I'd skinny-dip, too, if I had a summer house—there is some nudity in Love! Valour! Compassion! The Gloria Maddox space is small and naked actors might only be a step away, so if nudity offends you, be warned.