Homo Perfectus: Bigotry might keep Pharus from his rightful honor.
Homo Perfectus: Bigotry might keep Pharus from his rightful honor. Credit: Teddy Wolff

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Sir Rex Harrison was a Tony- and Oscar-winning actor whose stage career spanned seven decades. He was also, by many accounts, an enormous pain in the ass. Elizabeth Harris, the fifth of Harrison’s six wives, told her pal Roger Moore that Harrison would spend half an hour each morning dressing in his cape and boots before riding the lift down from his second-story bedroom for breakfast. He’d spend much of the morning choosing what wine he would drink and what clothes he would wear at lunch. When served whatever bottle he’d chosen from his own cellar, Harrison would frequently send it back.

Harrison’s earlier union with Kay Kendall was no less absurd, but briefer and sadder. Upon being informed that Kendall, his mistress, had leukemia—a cruel fact that was withheld from Kendall herself, somehow—he divorced his second and longest-serving wife, Lilli Palmer, to marry Kendall and comfort her until her death. Supposedly he and Palmer agreed to remarry once Kendall had passed. They didn’t, but Kendall held up her part of the bargain: She died in 1959, two years after she and Harrison, 19 years her senior, were married.

It isn’t particularly odd that that Terence Rattigan chose, 14 years later, to write a play inspired by Harrison and Kendall’s story. Rattigan was in his 60s and in poor health at the time, and younger playwrights and critics had dismissed the middlebrow style that had brought him success in post-war plays like The Winslow Boy and Separate Tables as square and unfashionable. What’s strange, though, is that Harrison starred in the play Rattigan wrote about him—playing, in essence, himself (too likably, in Rattigan’s estimation). The play had its U.S. premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1974, with Harrison in the saddle.

And that, according to the Washington Stage Guild, was the last time In Praise of Love was seen in D.C. until the guild’s sturdy revival of this satisfying-if-plodding comic drama opened on New Year’s Day. Director Laura Giannarelli’s production, too, trades on its star power, whether or not you know Conrad Feininger’s name. A WSG regular who deserves to be seen on more stages more often, Feininger sinks his fangs into the marquee role of sardonic old novelist-turned-literary-critic Sebastian Cruttwell—an esteemed man of letters who is seemingly so helpless at the minutiae of daily life that he needs his wife’s aid to plug in a lamp.

Clearly, Rattigan performed his due diligence as a fiction writer, outfitting his characters with professions drastically different from those of the people who inspired them. Like Ian Fleming before him, Cruttwell is a newspaperman who worked in intelligence during World War II (the play is set in 1973). That’s how he came to know Lydia, his substantially younger Estonian refugee wife, no stranger to tradecraft herself. Her murky backstory is one of the piece’s most intriguing elements. Julie-Ann Elliott is easy to love as this survivor with plenty of practice keeping despair at bay, her Natasha Fatale (of Boris and fame) accent be damned.

They have a politically tuned-in 20-year-old son (Christopher Herring, who looks 15 years too old for his role, but he’s fine) to whom Sebastian can hardly be bothered to speak, and a mutual friend in Mark (Steven Carpenter), an American whose books sell better than Sebastian’s ever did, but who still covets something Sebastian has. Mark’s arrival in the couple’s cozy, book-lined living room chips a crack into their shared fiction, one that spreads slowly throughout the evening. Every so often Feininger unleashes a withering bon mot to reward our patience.

Unlike their real-life antecedents, Lydia and Sebastian have been together a long time. We infer that they’ve agreed sans discussion to play dumb with one another rather than to confront the fact of Lydia’s illness together. It seems puzzling, now, that Rattigan’s work was shunned as dowdy and didactic for so long. This unhurried examination of love’s inarticulate complexities feels perceptive and free of judgment. Maybe it should be called In Praise of Like.

Choir Boy looks like a big hit, and it deserves to be. The musical melodrama, set in an all-black prep school for boys, comes from 34-year-old MacArthur Fellow Tarell Alvin McCraney. Though Studio Theatre’s previously staged his Brother/Sister Plays, a trio with one foot in West African mythology, the prior Studio offering Choir Boy most recalls is Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning drama about a gay baseball star.

Let me count the ways: Both plays are about an exceptional young man of color reckoning with homophobia in an exclusively male environment. Both take their time to build a convincing world and establish compelling characters, then sprinkle in an act of violence when it seems they need a little nudge towards a resolution. And both of them—at Studio, anyway—feature abundant full-frontal nudity from a cast of vigorous young bucks as well as functioning onstage showers. (Someone told me once that the showers in Take Me Out were very cold.)

What Choir Boy adds, as you might infer, is music. Superb music. Charles R. Drew Prep, its fictitious academy, is renowned for its gospel choir, and the show’s music director, Darius Smith, coaxes potent a capella performances of Negro spirituals like “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” (plus one New Edition jam from 1988) from six members of the seven-man cast as punctuation throughout the piece. Some of them don’t even interrupt the story: A performance of “Motherless Child” carries a montage wherein each of the five boys, credibly adolescent though the actors are obviously older, phones his remote parents.

Choir Boy’s protagonist, Pharus, is a scholarship student and the school’s most gifted singer. He’s determined to lead the choir, and his talent and relentless work ethic mostly protect him from those who don’t want to see “the little sweet boy they’ve been trying to straighten out for years” in such a high-profile position. But he’s got an enemy in Bobby (Keith Antone), an angry kid who’s also the headmaster’s nephew, and an ally in his roommate, AJ (Jaysen Wright, fresh off 1st Stage’s Take Me Out, wouldn’t you know). Pharus lands himself in hot water when he refuses to name the boy who attacks him with a homophobic epithet—to be a rat doesn’t jibe with the code of honor Drew wants its boys to live by.

When Pharus compliments AJ’s burly frame at length, AJ gently reminds Pharus that he’s straight—but AJ also fearlessly engages in flirtatious tickle-fights with the much smaller Pharus, making him possibly the most self-actualized straight 17-year-old who ever lived. Wright’s unaffected performance as the loyal and honorable AJ is almost enough to make you believe it. And as Pharus, Jelani Alladin is fully convincing as a the enterprising kid who talks such a good game that the occasional reminders he’s a lonely 17-year-old boy feel powerful and true.

It’s strange to see a young, much-lauded black playwright rely on the oft-lamented trope of a white authority figure summoned to help the black characters sort out their problems: It falls to Mr. Pendleton, a white professor who marched with Dr. King, to chide overwhelmed Headmaster Marrow (Marty Austin Lamar) for failing to consider that a certain percentage of the boys at his all-boys academy will be gay. There’s no flaw in the way McCraney has written Pendleton’s character—he makes a tin-eared joke about “Colored-People Time” and instantly regrets it—or in Alan Wade’s avuncular performance. But his presence remains mysterious.

McCraney mines the irony of an institution that proudly trumpets its association with the Civil Rights Movement (photos of MLK and Malcolm X ring Sherwood’s set) while tacitly accepting another strain of bigotry without bludgeoning you with it. There’s exactly one more song than is necessary, which saps the momentum exactly when we’re primed for it to resolve. This surfeit of harmony becomes Choir Boy’s sole bum note.

900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. $20-$50. (240) 582-0050. stageguild.org

1501 14th St. NW. $20-$88. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org