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Gay Rectitude

Love! Valour! Compassion!
Weekend Warriors: Jason Alexander and Stephen Bogardus take a spin in "Love! Valour! Compassion!"

The movie version of 'Love! Valour! Compassion!' proves that gay men can be just as mainstream as straights

By Richard von Busack

The celebrated Terrance McNally play Love! Valour! Compassion! has been adapted for the movies by Joe Mantello, who directed it for the New York stage. Mantello has opened the play up for the screen in the sense that there is now a real lake for the cast to swim naked in and a real house for them to prowl around in. The film, however, preserves (rigidly) the three-act structure of the play, which takes place over the three principal weekends of summer: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.

A group of gay men gather to relax, chat and face their mortality. Their host is the choreographer Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), lord of an enormous three-story house by a lake, perhaps in Bucks County, Penn., or upstate New York. (Over the credits, Gregory tells us how much he loves his house as the camera caresses its woodwork and marble; presumably we won't hate Gregory for being rich if we know what an eye he has for decor.)

Gregory's blind-from-birth lover, Bobby (Justin Kirk), co-hosts the affair. The guests include John Glover as John Jeckyll, a nasty but unfunny pianist from England. Glover plays not only the heckling Jeckyll but, in a sense, his Hyde: he also stars as his own sunny, sweet-natured, terminally ill twin brother, James, who is as pleasant as John is repellent.

On all three visits, Jeckyll brings with him his slutty lover, Ramon (Randy Becker), a dancer. The ensemble, predictably, also features the very-married pair of Arthur and Perry (John Benjamin Hickey and Stephen Spinella) and the comic relief--crying-clown division--of Buzz (Jason Alexander), a campy, Gertrude Lawrence­worshipping musical-comedy lover who is also suffering from AIDS.

The hosts and guests deal with their mortality while sunning themselves and swimming; once you get a hang of the structure, all you can do is wait for the third act's Labor Day autumnal chill. Love! Valour! Compassion! is depressing in the way it tries to hide its subject. The film pretends not to be directly about AIDS (there's a joke about a $5 fine for anyone mentioning the word "AIDS"--at least American movies will never go over budget that way).

Despite this pretense, the plot introduces a freak carnival accident to make sure there's a scene of howling mourning. Like almost everyone else who goes straight to the cinema from the theater, Mantello doesn't know how much onscreen weeping is appropriate for a movie theater. And neither Mantello or McNally develops the unwieldy cast--surely one character representing brave optimism in the face of the grave would have been enough?


Official movie web site.

A brief bio and interview with playwright Terrence McNally.


Who Invited Them Anyway?

All we know about Gregory is that he's a choreographer and that he has a stutter--a hesitation in his speech, really; he sounds too much like Katharine Hepburn for it to be anything but an imitation.

It would be one thing to make John Jeckyll a wit who just happened to be too cynical for the men here. Instead, he's bottomlessly insulting, and given to Yank-baiting, too. (Glover desperately needs a dialect coach; he practically dons a monocle and utters "Pip! Pip!" for his dual part as the two English brothers.)

Jeckyll is linked with the other character who has a really bad habit, Ramon. Ramon is not just a boyfriend thief, but a thief of his host's boyfriend. How did these two keep getting invited back for other weekends? McNally punishes Jeckyll and Ramon. In a scene that I'm sure wrung buckets of tears out of the stage audience, the ensemble describes, postmortem as it were, their deaths in the future. Naturally, Ramon and Jeckyll have the worst of it: Ramon gets the plane crash, and Jeckyll dies, as he tells us, unmourned. This is an old theatrical threat. If you aren't nice enough in this world, no one will cry at your funeral. Remember that William Jennings Bryan menaces Clarence Darrow with this terrible fate in the play Inherit the Wind. I'll take that risk of being buried in an un-tear-stained coffin and speculate that basically what Love! Valour! Compassion! represents is a purge of the promiscuous and the cynical elements from the ranks of gay men, as a condition of their being assimilated into the mainstream.

The play and the movie are meant to display those qualities that a straight audience would have no trouble with: monogamy, tree-hugging (the blind character, Bobby, has a big scene of feeling up a larch), playful joshing, and the quiet good taste and discretion of blue bloods like Gregory and James, the gracefully dying aristo.

Even for its riskiness in the display of authentic-looking Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, Love! Valour! Compassion! is a mealy-mouthed picture. If Terrence McNally's play, as some argue, represents the best of American theater, than the theater is in more trouble than the movies.

Love! Valour! Compassion! (R; 115 min.), directed by Joe Mantello, written by Terrence McNally, based on his play, photographed by Alik Sakharov and starring Jason Alexander, Stephen Bogardus and John Glover.

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