Everything old and gay, it seems, is new again. Last summer’s dueling gay plays, The Temperamentals and Next Fall, are shortly due to reappear, one in an open-ended Off-Broadway run and the other on Broadway. A View From the Bridge, with its classic 1950s jolt, the accusation of homosexuality, is likewise back on the Big Street. Next week’s roster of openings features a site-specific revival of the grandfather of all gay plays, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. And Britain has now kindly contributed The Pride, by Alexi Kaye Campbell, which Manhattan Class Company has just unveiled at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, featuring an all-British cast in a new American production, directed by Joe Mantello.
Campbell’s play handily explains, to some extent, why the question of gayness should still preoccupy the public mind so greatly. It means to be, like the mix of gay works surrounding it, both new and old, juxtaposing a trio of characters today—two gay men and the straight woman who loves them both—to an analogous trio half a century ago. The past bleeds into the present; the parallels and contrasts are meant to be the point.
In 1958, when gay is still a crime in England, Philip (Hugh Dancy), a successful realtor, is married to Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough), a former actress turned visual artist. One night, she brings home Oliver (Ben Whishaw), the obsessive, alienated, children’s-book author whose latest work she has been hired to illustrate. The romantic bell goes off: Philip and Oliver initiate an affair—we, like Sylvia, only learn the details of it much later—which makes Oliver increasingly infatuated with Philip, while making Philip increasingly guilty, self-hating, and distant.
Intercut with their scenes of escalating torment, a tale of 2008 turns the prototype characters on their heads. Philip is now a photographer who, after a year-and-a-half affair, has broken up with Oliver, a freelance journalist this time around. Oliver loves Philip, but can’t stop himself from compulsively going out for anonymous sex whenever Philip is away; Philip loves Oliver, but can’t stand the endless infidelities or, even worse, Oliver’s insistence that they don’t really matter. Sylvia, happily building up a new relationship of her own, is the supportive gal-pal who keeps trying to patch up the couple—or having to patch up self-destructive Oliver, whose need to be dominated by the anonymous cocks he goes down on she explains with a Marxist-feminist analysis that probably sounds much funnier to a British audience.
As the above indicates, there’s much to mull over in The Pride, though precious little, apart from the move toward increased openness, for gays to be proud about. Campbell writes skillfully, and his passionate concern is often more effective at moving us than the tidily crafted criss-cross of his alternating scenes. Mantello’s production heightens the latter with wonderfully hallucinatory staging. Under Paul Gallo’s shifting lights, David Zinn’s set pieces seem to undergo their own identity shifts as 1958 characters hover on the edges of 2008 scenes or vice versa. The acting, by all three principals as well as Adam James in a series of small roles, is first-class, with Dancy, subtly differentiating his two roles, casting the most intense magnetic field.
But to look past the tautly effective surface of The Pride suddenly reveals floods of questions, improbabilities, and areas that Campbell, in his eagerness to paint a prototypical portrait of each era’s gay life, has left puzzlingly blank. The Pride‘s six characters are all educated, knowledgeable people, yet they often talk, and act, as if they lived in a void, with no awareness of any predecessors or of anything going on around them.
By 1958, homosexuality no longer “dared not speak its name” in Britain; on the contrary, it was one of the decade’s preoccupations. That year, the government appointed a commission, headed by the university president Sir John Wolfenden, to investigate the issue. Published in 1957, the Wolfenden Report recommended decriminalizing homosexual acts committed in private between consenting adults; in 1967, this became law.
Till then, gay men still had ample reason to fear. If you were caught in an act of “indecency,” the inevitable sequence followed: get arrested, have name published in papers, lose job, become anathema to friends, lose wife and kids (if any), die. But attitudes had begun changing long before legalization. John Gielgud, for instance, found his career only minimally impaired by his 1953 arrest for having sex in “a Chelsea convenience.” There was plenty in the air to give “inverts” a new sense of solidarity. Though the Lord Chamberlain’s office still censored the British theater, even “Binkie” Beaumont, London’s leading producer, challenged it on the issue, by turning a West End theater into a subscribers-only private club in order to produce Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A View From the Bridge, Williams and Miller having refused to accept the Lord Chamberlain’s proposed deletions.
The puzzle in Campbell’s 1958 story pivots on Sylvia, who, as a working theater person, would most likely know all about the above. Why she should marry a highly repressed man like Philip (whose cold-fish attitude often suggests a 19th-century aristo rather than a 1950s realtor), and why she should then absolutely clamor for him to become friends with Oliver, seems incomprehensible, as does her shock when their affair is revealed. (Basil Dearden’s 1961 film Victim, a pro–Wolfenden Report thriller, actually handles the setup with more sophistication.)
In 2008, the puzzle centers on Oliver. Nobody suggests he see a therapist, or that he and Philip visit a marriage counselor. Nobody points out the dangers inherent in his promiscuity. (The only mention of AIDS comes from a straight minor character otherwise depicted as a boorish nitwit.) Nor do Philip and Oliver, when they finally sit down together, actually discuss what marriage means; they just keep reiterating their opposing stances. Naturally, Freud being passé, we never get a glimpse of what in Oliver’s childhood might lead him to be such a suicidal, compulsive mess. Does Campbell mean to suggest that every same-sex couple must end in either an orgy room or Tristan und Isolde? That’s hard to believe. But then, Oliver in 2008 is a journalist who dreams of giving up his job to write a book. In the Internet age, he’s as remote from reality as a 1950s actress who doesn’t seem to know about Gielgud.