The playwright was in the audience for opening night. That can be a harrowing experience for actors—and more so, perhaps, when the playwright is Terrence McNally and the play is his Tony-award-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! currently continuing its run at the Provincetown Theater.
“There’s nothing like the vulnerability of weekend guests,” points out one of the characters during the first act, and those vulnerabilities (as well as resilience, friendship, and cattiness) are at the core of this story. The house-party drama—or comedy—has been for centuries a theatrical mainstay, and here McNally takes advantage of all the opportunities it offers to play on people’s vulnerabilities and strengths as well.
This country home is owned by aging dance master Gregory (played by the theater’s artistic director David Drake) and his youthful and blind boyfriend, Bobby (Tommy Walsh). Over the course of one summer they have three visits by the same assortment of friends from New York City: middle-aged couple Perry (Scott Douglas Cunningham) and Arthur (Mark Boucher); English transplant John (Peter Gregus); and irrepressible showtune-loving Buzz (Justin D. Quackenbush). John—disliked by most of the other characters—throws the first monkey wrench into the gathering by bringing his new flirtatious lover, Ramon (Adam Ross) along with him; in the second visit he’ll also summon his twin brother James (also played by Gregus) to join the party.
And so the stage is set.
The characters don’t just ignore the fourth wall, they revel in tearing it to pieces, speaking directly to the audience, commenting on what others have said directly to the audience, sharing prescient information about events that have yet to unfold, and occasionally pointing out the elephant in the room—their vulnerability to AIDS, still an almost-certain killer when the play made its début in 1994.
What works particularly well in this production is the deep friendship and camaraderie that this ensemble is able to project: we believe in their affection toward one another as each navigates a summer of turmoil, staying in relationships, changing relationships, coping with professional and personal challenges, watching and fearing as death approaches. Their connections are layered, nuanced, and complex, and everyone in the cast rises to the occasion, creating and maintaining that exquisite interconnected web.
Within it—and perhaps because of it—they can be caustic, resentful, and hysterically funny. As a character originated by the incomparable Nathan Lane, it would be easy to feel intimidated playing Buzz, but Quackenbush has a confidence and sheer brilliant comedic timing that completely carries the character and, sometimes, the play. He has w undeniably the best lines (“I’m entering my Lycra period”) and he plays them to the hilt, delivering witty one-liners with skill and panache. I’d watch him recite a list of vegetables.
Quackenbush isn’t the only one with outstanding timing, and that has to be down to directors Drake and Myra Slotnick. This ensemble never has a lapse in delivering anything, be it a look, a line, or a pause. That timing draws the audience in and makes the characters’ interactions feel real, genuine, even spontaneous. Seriously: a coup.
It’s hard to know what to make of Gregory, and that may have been McNally’s intention. At turns confident and freakishly insecure, resentful and nurturing, Drake hints at layers to his character that aren’t always revealed to the audience and therefore remain something of an enigma. As the main narrator, Cunningham is pitch-perfect; he’s the best-adjusted of all the characters and the friend everybody really wants to have. (His husband Arthur is the spouse everyone wants: tempted by Ramon’s charms, he does not succumb, and Boucher is immensely likeable in the role.) Gregus has a challenging time, creating and maintaining two very different characters, one which nobody likes (“people who write journals expect them to be read by people like us”) and one that’s vulnerable and kind, falling endearingly in love with Buzz; he carries off the dual personalities powerfully, and his portrayal of James has some particularly delightful moments. And Bobby, young, indecisive, and—well, young—holds up a mirror to the confusion everyone felt when they were twenty.
But he’s the only real youngster here, and the line between him and the others—despite the prevalence of disparate-age relationships—is clearly drawn. Six of the eight men are coping with middle age, several of them with the disappointments of careers not measuring up to expectations, everyone questioning if they’re somehow still good enough. Even the play’s solid couple, Arthur and Perry, keep fretfully checking in with each other to make sure “we’re all right, aren’t we?” As the quintessential outsider (“Puerto Rico is a territory of American imperialism”), Ramon focuses on pointing out the insiders’ vulnerabilities and hypocrisies—also, of course, a staple of house-party theatre.
It’s all very specific and particular and yet—as are all good plays—it’s universal as well.
There are a few missteps, of course; no play or production is perfect. Some of the third act feels a little heavy-handed. Gregus’ character’s frequent self-referential remarks about his Englishness underscore the unevenness of his accent. Level-headed Perry has a meltdown that feels oddly out of character and place.
But these are quibbles: Love! Valour! Compassion! is an extraordinary reminder of a time that thankfully no longer exists, and a portrait of the present in affirming our dependence on (and joy at) the love and support of our community.