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Eight men, three summer weekends, one omnipresent plague: Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! is slick, accessible, never challenging, and perfect for squishy liberal audiences, who’ll sit nodding in self-satisfied fashion as the playwright preaches to the choir about how gays are just as warm and funny and likable and fallible as the rest of society.

The three-act, three-hour play (a Tony-winner on Broadway and soon a feature film with most of the original cast) demands tight ensemble acting, deft, subtle characterizations, and a sensitive directorial hand—chiefly because there’s not much “there” there in the script, which is all about grappling with mortality and celebrating the families gay men create for themselves as alternatives or complements to the ones they inherit. Token squabbles involving jealousy, racial bias, internalized and institutionalized homophobia, and political differences punctuate the evening, but for all McNally’s deft humor and polished prose, this isn’t so much a drama as a collection of scenes, a series of character studies.

And such characters: Gregory, a celebrated dancer and choreographer nearing the end of his performing career, surrounds himself with close friends on holiday weekends at his fabulous country home in Dutchess County, N.Y. Gregory, 40-ish, stutters under stress; his lover Bobby, half his age, is blind. Their guests are likewise afflicted to varying degrees: Thirtyish Buzz has AIDS; John, pushing 50, vents deep-seated bitterness at every opportunity; fortysomething Perry’s political philosophy leans right. Arthur—well, Arthur is Perry’s easygoing lover of 14 years, and if marriage to a conservative isn’t a burden, well…

Anyway, as Perry and John are always saying when things get tense (or dull), they’re all prosperous, professional, and pale—guaranteed nonthreatening to straight audiences, if a little predictable to those of us who’ve seen Longtime Companion.

Odd man out is Ramon, a stripling of a dancer with a cocky attitude and a body to back it up. Ostensibly John’s (paid?) companion, he’s more interested in Bobby, though McNally never clearly indicates why. (They’re both young, of course, which may be the point; perhaps this aging thing has the playwright worried.) Ramon’s virility raises questions for all the older men, reminding them—especially Gregory—of their advancing years, their varying degrees of sexual restlessness, and their common histories.

McNally and his gang find a sympathetic director in Studio Theatre’s John Going, who keeps the proceedings light enough that audiences might not notice how emotionally lightweight and manipulative the script is. James Kronzer’s spare, surpassingly elegant set, McNally’s undeniably accomplished way with dramatic structure and the rhythms of language, Gil Thompson and George Fulginiti-Shakar’s sound and music, including at least three versions of “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and a snippet from Jessye Norman’s recording of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, all conspire to conjure a potent atmosphere of elegy, flirting dangerously with syrupy sentimentalism but never quite crossing the fatal line.

The trouble is that, for all his craft, McNally has nothing more profound to say than that it’s love alone—brotherly love, the love of boon companions, the resilient love of longtime partnership—that gives us the resources to live with grace in times of great trial. And so it’s the performances that will or won’t hold this play together.

Happily, Going has a splendid Bobby in Sean Pratt, a tall redhead with a guileless grin and the best Texas accent I’ve heard this side of Austin. Pratt’s graceful, natural performance looks as if it’s not one, which can’t be easy. John Emmert, with his thin, expressive face and his talent for waspishness, couldn’t be a better Perry, and the earnest, affecting Christopher Wilson (Gregory) and Michael Russotto (Arthur) give memorable performances as well.

But there are other, less felicitous things happening on the Studio stage: Ramon de Ocampo’s Ramon is regrettably one-dimensional and loud. Kirk Jackson, who played the dual roles of John and his AIDS-stricken twin brother James on Broadway, does the same here, with an inconsistent British accent and rather too many facial tics. And Floyd King, dean of Washington’s comic actors, can handle just about anything, even Buzz’s over-the-top third-act rant about happy endings (which, come to think of it, is reminiscent of nothing so much as one of those soapbox speeches Dixie Carter used to deliver at the 18-minute mark of every episode of Designing Women). But Going might have rewritten or cut the line that pegs Buzz’s age very specifically at 32: “I was conceived after a performance of Wildcat with Lucille Ball. I don’t just love Lucy, I owe my very existence to her.” King is many marvelous things, but he’s emphatically not 32, and his antic, pop-eyed Buzz seems in some ways an odd fit in this band of friends.

The show’s other problems are in the script. Why, for instance, does John, who hasn’t a qualm about snooping in Gregory’s journal, react so violently when two of the others hide in a closet to eavesdrop as he and Ramon indulge in a little sexual fantasy (meant to be titillatingly outré but really rather tame). And why, for God’s sake, would Gregory let John bring an interloper and misfit like Ramon back to the house for the second weekend—let alone for the third, after Bobby’s confessed infidelity?

Shortcomings like these—and a sense, by the point at which the characters step outside time to reflect on the when and how of their deaths, that McNally is working too hard to play on the audience’s heartstrings—make Love! Valour! Compassion! less a work of art than of artifice. Its strenuously heartwarming moments, even populated by actors as talented as most of these are, can’t conceal the hollowness at its core. CP