Will someone please put on some clothes? Review: In a small theater, too much nudity distracts from the effectiveness and fine performances of 'Love! Valour! Compassion!'

September 16, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In his introduction to the published script of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" playwright Terrence McNally states: "I wanted to write about what it's like to be a gay man at this particular $H moment in our history. I wanted to tell everyone else who we are when they aren't around."

His play, which won the 1995 Tony Award and was released as a movie this summer, did all that as well as something that proved more universal. In chronicling the events of three summer holiday weekends shared by a group of gay men at an upstate New York country house, McNally created a play about family -- not the family we are born into, but the family we choose for ourselves.

Under the direction of Terry J. Long, a local McNally aficionado, AXIS Theatre is presenting the play's area premiere. The production features strong ensemble acting and a number of impressive individual performances, but overall it fails to sound that universal chord.

The reason is fairly simple -- excessive nudity. Granted, the Broadway version included what the New York Times described as "more male nudity than has probably ever been seen in a legitimate Broadway theater." And critics commented on the nudity in the movie as well. But nudity on stage is always tricky, and in a small theater, it's trickier still.

Whether or not this nudity is true to these particular characters -- and at the risk of sounding like a prude -- a little more discretion would not have compromised this largely laudable production.

Instead, the onslaught of nakedness distracts from the larger theme of family that can win this moving play the wider audience it deserves.

Assuming the eight characters do constitute a family, the paterfamilias is Gregory, a famous choreographer who is the host of these weekend gatherings. Although he initially overdoes Gregory's halting speech patterns, Joseph Moore gives a sensitive, empathetic portrayal of this middle-aged dancer painfully confronting his decreasing physical agility. Gregory is a gentle figure throughout most of the play, and Moore is especially powerful in the scene in which the choreographer suddenly lashes out at the young, virile dancer who is one of his guests.

The play's most taxing role is actually two roles -- twin brothers John and James. McNally wrote these complex parts for John Glover, a Towson University alum whose tour-de-force performance won him a Tony. Nasty John is the heavy of the piece, the polar opposite of sweet James, who is dying of AIDS. Each twin, however, needs to possess some of both characteristics to seem three-dimensional. AXIS' Mark Bernier makes a yeoman effort, but for most of the evening his depictions, particularly of Mephistophelean John, are too one-sided.

The cast also includes another HIV-positive character, Buzz, a flamboyant musical comedy buff. Patrick Martyn delivers a touching portrayal of this self-described "gay imp," and he is also responsible for the evening's broad comic relief. In addition, as a couple celebrating a dozen years together, Stephen Antonsen and Brian Jacobs convey a bond that would be an example for any marriage.

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" features a great deal of direct-audience address, beginning with Gregory's introductory remarks. "They don't build houses like this anymore," he says. "This house was meant to stand. Welcome." They don't build many plays like this anymore, either, with three long acts and two intermissions. Director Long would have been wise to have tightened the pacing. But mostly, he should have eliminated some of the nudity so that more theatergoers could comfortably accept Gregory's invitation to "make yourself at home."

'Love! Valour! Compassion!'

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sept. 21, Sept. 28 and Oct. 5; through Oct. 5

Tickets: $10 and $14

Call: 410-243-5237

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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