Although the SpeakEasy Stage Company is a low budget non-Equity operation, it is hard to imagine a better place for the Boston premiere of Terrence McNally's 1995 Tony winner, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" Director Paul Daigneault excels in making love visible on stage: lustful, romantic, playful, tender, familial, fraternal, compassionate, ambivalent -- Daigneault's stagings generally have as many shades of affection as a well-done Mamet production has gradations of hostility. As for valour---well, any company that takes on "The Twilight of the Golds" "Hello Again" "Lips Together Teeth Apart" and "V!C!L!" in the same season may be brave to the point of foolhardiness.
But Speakeasy's courage has paid off. This production of McNally's play is nearly ideal, even though individually none of the actors in it would be cast as the obvious first choice for the part he is playing. The acting is alive with the accurately observed detail and the mutual sensitivity that make this group convincing as friends and lovers who share a history. The ensemble forms a community wherein each character is altered by the alterations the others go through in the course of the play. Stereotype deepens into character, and situations right out of soap opera-- or grand opera, for that matter -- sail past the shoals of sentimentality or sensationalism into earned emotion -- which is another way of saying love is made visible on the Lyric's stage.
L!V!C! doesn't have a single unified plot. The script uses all the widgets of contemporary presentational drama --asides, soliloquies, simultaneous and split scenes, story theatre direct narration -- to condense what amounts to a sprawling Victorian novel of intimate relationships . Greg (Neil Donohoe), a celebrated dancer and choreographer who is nearing the end of his career as a performer, owns a big old house near a lake, distant and private enough for skinny-dipping and trysts. Greg shares his house with Bobby (Eddie Rutkowski), who is blind and about fifteen years younger. Greg's friend Perry speculates that there is some deep symbolic significance in an artist of the dance being coupled with a partner who will never know "the most important thing about him", what his dancing looks like. But Perry's own partner, Arthur, denies this: "It's not a statement, it's a relationship!"
Greg regularly invites a group of his friends from the city up for the weekend, and the three acts of the play take place on the three holiday weekends that define the summer: Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day. The friends are Perry (Jeff Miller, Greg's attorney; Arthur (Jim O'Brien ), Perry's lover of 14 years -- "We're role models, it's very stressful"; Buzz (Richard Carey), an AIDS-infected musical comedy fanatic who does costumes for Greg's dance company; and John (Albert Cremin), a Brit who once long ago wrote a musical that was produced Off Broadway but quickly closed. John, who is attractive and apparently rich, brings with him Ramon (Ricardo Rodriguiz ), a studly young dancer from Puerto Rico. John is not a nice person. The others -- presumably with the exception of his host --- regard him with attitudes that range from distaste to loathing. But Greg pities him because his twin brother James is into the terminal stage of AIDS, and is coming to the States to see if he can get better medical care here. (The brothers' family must be rich: leaving the National Health to come to the land of the free, and $10,000 per month fee-for-service bills?) John will have to rally round and be supportive now, although he has always hated his brother for being everybody's favorite, the lovable and charming one of the pair.
The biggest acting challenge goes to Cremins, who plays both Jeckyll twins. Cremins, who was a touching Mindy in Triangle's "Lisbon Traviata" last season, is sweet and endearing as the Good Twin, James, but less convincing in his early Bad Twin John scenes. Cremins is just not enough of a shit. Niceness leaks through. But the actor rises to John's tortured confession/denunciation of his brother near the end, evoking tears. Jim O'Brien's Arthur is every bit as admirable, morally, as the near-mythic James the Good, but O'Brien manages to make goodness seem normative. Eddie Rutkowsky does something similar for blindness, creating a Bobby both competent and vulnerable. Neil Donohoe is convincing as an artist and a lover, although his Greg is not credible as a dancer of genius.
Choreographer Kirsten McKinney has made portraying genius easier for Ricardo Rodriguez's Ramon. He need only toss off a casual movement quote or two, and display a beautifully muscled body. Richard Carey's Buzz has to display the body of a clown, and toss off the bulk of McNally's campy quips. Carey does that very well. His valour, however, edges over into petulance. Jeff Miller is effective as Perry, avoiding the petulance-trap and supplying nuance for a part that uses maybe one tenth of Miller's acting range. Still, the real star of this production is the group as a whole, a family of affiliation, where every face and body is communicating all of the stories, all of the time, and testifying to the truth of them.
Of course, L!V!C!'s truth is not the whole truth, or nothing but the truth. The cozy gay domesticity of the play amounts to almost a separate sphere. "I'm sick of straight people! They're everywhere!" Buzz complains. But of course they aren't: in the world of the play they don't matter at all. And the play is nearly apolitical. The social Darwinism that shapes most lives, gay and straight, in the arts as well as in the closeted suburbs, is kept at bay or reduced to a harmless S&M scenario. But within its sphere, the play is a triumph: a comic romp, and a bittersweet Ode to fraternal love.