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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But don't be in a rush to spend your entertainment dollars elsewhere. The Londoners were not wrong to embrace of The Pride, including the Olivier Nomination as Best New Play. Campbell has tackled the shift from homosexuality as a cause for shame and tragic self-denial to a freer anything goes but still fraught social scene with remarkable originality.
The cast of characters features well written, emotionally engaging people, including a major female role (hurrah! hurrah!). The play's greatest virtue, which could easily be gimmicky but isn't, is its structure: Three people are caught up in a triangular relationship that's plays out as it would in 1958 and also in 2008 — with the characters the same throughout, but, given the shift between the two very different eras, they're not really the same. Now, under Joe Mantello's unfussy direction and with a quartet of ideally cast actors, The Pride sailed across the pond with its strengths intact.
The triangulated, half-century apart plot revolves around Philip (handsome, stiff upper lip Hugh Dancy), Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough, a warm, loving and very affecting presence) and Oliver (big eyed, sexy and vulnerable Ben Whishaw, ). It begins in 1958, with Philip and Sylvia married, and Oliver arriving in their apartment for drinks before dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. The reason for the get-together is that Sylvia wants Philip to meet Oliver whose new children's book she is illustrating. The tone is Noel Cowardesque, with lots of crisp, polite dialogue.
By the time the trio heads off to the restaurant, we know that Oliver has traveled to many of the places that Philip, who's taken over his late father's real estate business only dreams about visiting or emigrating to, and that Sylvia was an actress before trying her hand at book illustration. We've also seen enough flashes of electricity charge the men's verbal exchanges and in a silent our eyes locked and held moment to know that Sylvia need have no worries about Oliver and Philip liking each other. Philip may not share the camaraderie that has accompanied their collaboration on a creative project, but it's not unlikely that something even more compelling will shift the configuration of this triangle.
What's intriguing about the ensuing scenes is that these characters don't change their names or ages (not spelled out but probably early thirties). In short, the playwright is telling their stories as they would play out in two different eras, and has adjusted their personas to fit the alternating shifts between the homophic 50s that condemned the Philips and Olivers of Great Britain to painfully hypocritical lives and the all the way out of the closet twenty-first century.
While it wouldn't hurt to unobtrusively project the date for each scene, this is not really a problem since Dancy, Whishaw and Riseborough subtly and convincingly portray the time-propelled shifts in their characters and Mattie Ulrich's costumes are quite clearly of each scene's era. David Zinn's set further clarifies what's going on and where. Its mirrored back wall echoes the double reflection on these peoples lives and the gradual paring away of furniture reflects the change from properly walled in lives to the more open but still more imperfect than happily ever after present.
Interesting and well done as this time travelling structure is, it runs the risk of fizzling into predictability once the audience gets in synch with the structural setup. Fortunately Campbell doesn't fall into this trap but also alters the interaction between the characters so that the relationships change bring new dynamics and ideas to explore.
While initially the interaction between the two men is most potent, Sylvia continues to play a major role — not just as the betrayed wife, but as an important loving force in both Philip's and Oliver's lives.
Campbell also doesn't allow the difficult 1958 romance between the men the relationship between Philip and Oliver to just move into less troubled territory. They've come a long way but they are still subject to loneliness and the friction caused by different lifestyle priorities. The recurring mention of loneliness and the fact that problems don't just go away with time but mutate, give The Pride a universal appeal.
Adam James is a potent cast addition. He brings some much needed comic relief as a man making extra money by catering to special tastes for role playing. He's also hilarious as a magazine editor who has hired Oliver to write a politically incorrect piece on the gay scene. Like so much in this play, this scene takes an unexpected turn when this man brings in the AIDS issue with a reminiscence about his uncle. James is also in one of the play's most painfully poignant scenes, as a doctor interviewing Philip for a behavioral conditioning treatment to "cure" him of his homosexuality.
Though, ultimately the 1958 scenes with their achingly repressed characters grip the heartstrings more than the 2008 segments, Mr. Campbell can take pride in everything about his debut play. For sure, it leaves me eager to see what he comes up with next.