Hugh Dancy, Adam James, Andrea Riseborough, Ben Whishaw
There’s a tension between the constraints of secrecy and the arguably equal constraints of openness and liberation seething just below the surface of The Pride, British playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell’s debut play, a hit at the Royal Court Theatre in 2008 which is making its New York debut this month in a production directed by Joe Mantello and starring an all-around excellent cast of British actors.
The signature device of the play is to have its three central characters – Oliver, Sylvia, and Philip – mirrored across two time periods. Each actor in the play depicts two separate characters with the same name, one each in 1958 and in 2008.
The play opens in 1958; Oliver, a children’s book author, is just arriving to visit Sylvia, his illustrator, and Philip, her real estate agent husband. The three have a curious chat in the married couple’s sitting room, discussing joys of the creative life and Philip’s desire to have become something other than a man showing empty rooms to prospective buyers.
Oliver, a lithe, soft-spoken man, speaks mysteriously of a recent trip to Greece and to a revelation he experienced at Delphi, the ancient home of the oracle, during which he discovered that “one day, maybe man, many years from now, there will be an understanding of certain things.”
Oliver in 1958 struggles with “sleepless nights,” eventually finding an intense love for Philip, who, despite his sexual complicity, denies his true feelings of love as “a deviation” that can be fought against with enough effort or treatment.
Oliver’s 2008 counterpart, an out and proud gay journalist, is liberated for the most part from concerns about reactions to his sexuality. Instead of searching for an enduring love, he instead finds casual encounters in the park. After a break-up with modern-day Philip, a photographer with whom he couldn’t sustain a relationship because of this tendency toward hook-ups, he spirals out of control in an attempt to find a balance in his life between love and sex, taking comfort in the presence of his good friend Sylvia, who occasionally feels as if Oliver’s personal drama monopolizes her time.
Though the play occasionally deals in types and fails to give us a clear portrait of what the Olivers’ and Philips’ loves for one other are like behind closed doors, the structure of the piece works wonders in exploring the duality of these opposite conditions – denial and liberation. The play seems to ask if much has really changed in the plights of gay people over the course of fifty years, finding the uneasy answer that some things have while others have quite a way to progress.
Director Joe Mantello keeps the action moving fluidly between the play’s duelling time periods. A veteran director of gay-themed plays (see Love! Valour! Compassion! and Take Me Out), the cast members never less than fully engaged with their characters’ anguished situations.
Heading up the cast are Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw as Philip and Oliver respectively. Both stage veterans, Dancy plays the role of insecure 1950s husband with aplomb, violently combating his feelings of love for Oliver, whom, played by Whishaw, seems simultaneously extraordinarily delicate and strong-willed. Though Dancy’s twenty-first century character is less well-defined, both, alongside a fine Andrea Riseborough in the Sylvia roles and Adam James, who plays a series of interloping men, face and succeed in tackling the unique acting challenges posed by Campbell, a playwright in possession of a thrilling new theatrical voice.