Normalizing Queerness Since 1958

03/03/2010 3:10 AM |

There seems to be confusion among audience members at The Pride, a new play by Alexi Kaye Campbell, because some scenes take place in 1958 and some in 2008, yet the three main characters have the same names in both eras. Campbell has said that he intends his characters to be versions of the same people marked by their epoch. In the 1958 scenes, Philip (Hugh Dancy) is a married real estate agent dealing with gay longings that are so repressed they seem to be tearing his insides apart. In the modern scenes, Philip is just as conventional, but in a radically new way: he wants his boyfriend Oliver (Ben Whishaw) to be monogamous. Whishaw plays the 50s Oliver as a romantic with a quick pedant’s grin and the modern Oliver as a self-loather who thinks of his carnal adventuring as punishment. The strange thing about The Pride is that Campbell doesn’t dramatize the parallel between 1958 Oliver’s need for normality and modern Oliver’s heterosexual normalizing with his straying, kitty-cat-like boyfriend. Campbell has the material to say something complex about the perils of assimilation, but he stops short on a “can’t we all love each other?” conclusion that is not helpful, either politically or artistically.

Luckily, the cast of The Pride is so splendid that they take the best of Campbell’s speeches and hurl them at us with transfixing lyrical feeling while guiding us with ease over the rare bad patches in his writing. I’ve heard for a while just how good Whishaw is on stage, and this performance proves it. In films, Whishaw has been striking in his fragility, but a recessive screen presence, as if he was scared of calling attention to himself. On stage, he’s in his element. When the 1958 Oliver tries to win back 50s Philip, Whishaw is so physically charged with romantic intensity that the scene carries a special, almost adolescent sting, a pang of despair and disappointment that gracefully relates to the play’s modern argument for sexual fidelity. Alongside the flyweight Whishaw, the also-delicate Dancy looks solid, and he’s magnificent in their Act I confrontation, struggling to control feelings that keep trying to break out. The female roles in plays about gay male identity are generally thankless, but Andrea Riseborough is such an authoritative performer that she deepens her 50s wife and her modern friend in ways that make them both likable yet different women. Adam James fills out a variety of characters with relish, and has maybe the best scene as a straight magazine editor whose panicked stream of consciousness leads him into a socially embarrassing bit of genuine emotion. The Pride is a play about giving in to emotion and about letting it transform your life, and that’s all to the good, but its resolution is too tidy and conservative to resonate past repressive good intentions.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)