Picking up the press kit for the new gay comedy-drama Love! Valour! Compassion!, I was primed to find a dictionary noting the multiple meanings of "queen." Of course, this enterprise is too self-consciously tasteful to commit such a faux pas. Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning work has been called "one of the major plays of our time." Moviegoers who aren't stage-struck may wonder, "What's the fuss?"
Reviewing another McNally-based movie, Frankie and Johnny, six years ago, The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty described the style that McNally and the director adopted for that picture as "a kind of sitcom classicism whose indispensable elements are a wacky workplace filled with benign eccentrics and an apartment building with at least one resident capable of bursting into the main character's apartment and reeling off a string of tart one-liners."
The same could be said of Love! Valour! Compassion!, except that McNally and his current director, Joe Mantello, modify their sitcom format for the domesticated mid-'90s. Characters as cozy as the dramatis personae of Friends ritually pile into the woody lakeside estate of a stuttering choreographer named Gregory (Stephen Bogardus) to celebrate Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day.
Buzz, a musical-comedy queen played by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander, is the resident most capable of reeling off a string of tart one-liners. But nearly all of them enjoy a verbal dust-up, including Gregory's blind, youthful lover, Bobby (Justin Kirk), and a stable professional couple--a ridiculously wholesome accountant, Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey), and a jaundiced lawyer, Perry (Stephen Spinella). The man they love to hate, a loathsome British-born composer, John Jeckyll (John Glover), introduces the odd men out who generate what passes for dramatic tension--a dancer named Ramon (Randy Becker), who might as well have "Hot Stuff" stamped on his forehead, or his bottom; and John's twin brother, James (also played by Glover), an angelic AIDS-sufferer who sheds sweetness and light over the sourest, darkest occasions.
I enjoyed Frankie and Johnny because performers like Michelle Pfeiffer and Kate Nelligan took McNally's playable (if shopworn) lines way out on their own emotional limbs. But Love! Valour! Compassion! is a by-the-numbers ensemble piece: It doesn't give the cast any room to mine fresh revelations. What we get are packaged epiphanies, like John's aria about the defining bondage episode of his youth. One by one, the characters come out with hidden fears and traumas, just as they do in the "You'll laugh! You'll cry!" climax, when they each emerge from a Swan Lake chorus line to relate how they will die. Tchaikovsky never had it so pathetique.
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Although Ramon drives everybody crazy, the movie ultimately demonstrates that tender companionship trumps hot sex, and that the only immortality derives from the survival of good feeling. Were it not for the male nudity and the wisecracks, it would be hard to distinguish Love! Valour! Compassion! from those homespun comforters that wind up on the Hallmark Hall of Fame at holidays. Director Mantello states the defense for this movie when he says, "It's very much about what it is like for men to be affectionate with one another...to be incredibly comfortable with one another physically."
But when Mantello says, "There are certain things that make gay relationships different, that require a certain, very specific set of inter-relational skills," he loses me. What can he be talking about on the basis of this movie? The capacity to banter? The tolerance of sexual peccadilloes? I'd be more involved in the movie if it did elucidate gay life for straights like me. But the filmmakers are caught between portraying gay denizens of the middle class as nothing more than exceptionally droll bourgeoisie and sentimentalizing them as members of their own medically and socially imperiled species. The aura of melancholy mutes the movie, and dates it--Love! Valour! Compassion! now seems so pre-Ellen, so 1995.
Supporters of humdrum special-interest cinema often argue that theatrical cliches and stereotypes can be renewed simply by altering their race, nationality, or sex. But as thin puddings like this movie prove, it actually takes energy, invention, or talent. Homosexuality aside, Love! Valour! Compassion! is just On Golden Pond with better jokes--an old-fashioned three-act let's-face-our-mortality play, adorned with an AIDS ribbon.
Love! Valour! Compassion!
Jason Alexander, Randy Becker, Stephen Bogardus, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Justin Kirk, and Stephen Spinella. Written by Terrence McNally, from his play. Directed by Joe Mantello. Opens Friday.