There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Terrence McNally’s 1994 play was the perfect candidate for Best Play Tonycleverly written, schematic, unsurprising, with an admirable tolerant slant. Like all well-meaning issue plays that win big onstage and then make solid, undistinguished transitions to film that everyone applauds and no one sees, Love! Valour! Compassion! is so decent and neatly constructed it seems churlish to find it a bore. Quality isn’t this movie adaptation’s problem; it never isremember Equus? ‘night, Mother?
L!V!C! is a tidy triptych of the experiences of eight gay men over three summer weekends spent at a spectacular house, a rambling, restored Victorian wonder set amid a pastoral that slopes down to a sparkling lake. The house is, as directors of other movies like to say about “New York City” or “the technology,” another charactera refuge, a forgiving Eden, a place to be gay that functions as the literal version of a site the characters are searching for in their hearts.
The house’s owner, Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), is a 40ish choreographer whose suppleness is diminishing, possibly along with his creativity. He’s gentle and rather enigmatic, the perfect host; when he cracks up, it is supposed to be a considerable shock by comparison, although the scene ends up strangely muted and unconvincing. Accountant Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) and lawyer Perry (Stephen Spinella) have been together for 14 years; the strain of such lengthy togetherness and of being seen as an example is beginning to take a toll. (“We’re role models,” says Perry. “It’s very stressful.”) Perry’s politics are calcifying as he ages, and Arthur finds his lover’s increasingly frequent right-wing rants distressing. Bobby (Justin Kirk) is Gregory’s lover, a young blind man who tilts his face to the sky beatifically and “sees” peoples’ nature with uncanny accuracy.
Broadway-crazy Buzz (Jason Alexander), HIV-positive, frantically keeps fear at bay by acting out at the highest pitch of nelly cliché. Bitter, distant John Jeckyll (John Glover), a pianist and composer no one but Gregory much likes, brings along his latest, a studly dancer named Ramon (Randy Becker), who’d rather go naked. Joining the party later is John’s identical twin James (also played by Glover, with delicacy and relish), first spotted rolling onto the grounds in the back of an open car, in a huge sun hat tied on with a scarf and a printed smock flapping behind him in the breeze. Witty, generous, constantly amused James is the diametric opposite of his brother, as you may imagine when characters are named Jeckyll; McNally believes this device to be so clever that he doesn’t let the characters refer to it.
The stage is set for a roundelay of couplings and uncouplings, arguments, confrontations, confidences, laughter, and tears. McNally gets right to it without bothering with too much convincing psychology. Ramon is immediately attracted to Bobby, supposedly because Bobby can’t see him and judge him a hot young moron, as the others do. But that would make Ramon’s attraction just as shallowhe wants Bobby from the first second they meet, hardly an endorsement of Bobby’s sparkling personality. Perry and Arthur quarrel over various social and political issues, all screamingly “relevant”Perry’s first word is “Cunt!,” shouted at a crazy woman driver, and of course Arthur avers that this sort of talk “diminishes us all.”
What follows is so schematic it’s hardly worth detailing: the dinner that ends with shouts; the infidelity (Bobby with Ramon, quite hurried and unclear), the confession, the banishment, the reconciliation; the kinky secret discovered (John and Ramon, and it’s not that kinky, either); the love renewed (Perry and Arthur); the love initiated (Buzz and James, in the only plot that has any forward thrust), and other revelatory claptrap.
Mantello, who directed the stage version, has brought to the screen seven of the eight cast members, minus Nathan Lane, who was understandably wary of becoming straight America’s cuddly, new, best gay friend, and plus Alexander, whose closest-thing-to-a-star presence knocks the ensemble’s balance out of whack. Everyone is terribly good, but Alexander’s history as a Broadway baby and TV ubiquity render his version of the fluttery-but-hurting musical-comedy queen slightly dubious. A rabid fan of such things is by definition not the same person who stars in them; the psychologies are totally different. Listening to Buzz liken his dramatic situation to something from Annie Get Your Gun creates a dissonanceof course he’d know this stuff.
Buzz’s character is the closest to stereotype, but the others veer dangerously near Archetype Shoals as well. Ramon turns out to have a soul, but he (a professional dancer!) has never heard of Julie Andrewsan unlikely bit of ignorance that is just a setup for Buzz’s rant against “the state of the American musical.” If you can’t follow the meaning of this, McNally offers a detailed map: “The state of America is what should get you upset,” Perry says. “It does!” Buzz snaps. “It’s a metaphor, you asshole.”
Elsewhere, the characters act out 30-second personality vignettes that are like gay Dockers commercialsArthur practices in the mirror asking Ramon for a swim, catches sight of his bald spot, and sighs; Bobby communes ecstatically with a tree; Gregory, still lithe and sinewy, finds himself unable to complete a dance step. Good plays and bad movies are strangely prone to this sort of remedial analysis; L!V!C! even opens with the characters packing their luggage revealingly, the same sort of acting-class exercise as the unpacking montage in The Big Chill and the packed-lunches-of-the-soul in The Breakfast Club.
As a play, Love! Valour! Compassion! was already cinematic, with its natural settingsthe house, the lake, the dock, the gardenand opening it up has added much to the visual splendor and feeling of serenity, but when the film goes indoors it feels closed-in and stagy. The characters’ reactions happen too fast; they’re ready with their psychologies, so that we can witness how they’re challenged or affirmed. Perhaps Love! Valour! Compassion! works better as a play; you can see for yourself, as the local version is running at Studio Theatre. But the film isn’t often much more than, well, very nice. It’s not exactly a sign of progress or a welcome expression of visibility that gay people are now entitled to their own sensible, clichéd, neatly diagrammed fables about their lives.CP