Though the play is essentially set in a time warp - the characters names are Philip (Hugh Dancy), Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough), and Oliver (Ben Whishaw) in both years, but they’re not exactly the same people - director Joe Mantello has staged things in a way that suggests the space-time continuum has already imploded. Setting his action on a bleakly bare set (by David Zinn) that resembles a post-apocalyptic rehearsal studio (complete with reflective back wall), Mantello takes to blood-thickening extremes Campbell’s notion that the present and the past are, at most, two different sides of the same coin.
As with many of Mantello’s highest-profile assignments, including musicals both hit (Wicked) and flop (9 to 5) and plays spanning the spectra of style and subject (The Ritz, Blackbird, Three Days of Rain, The Odd Couple, Glengarry Glen Ross), this surface-level examination of theme does more harm than good. Campbell argues that no relationship, whether man-woman (romantic or otherwise) or man-man, can be properly understood without a grasp of the societal context surrounding it. In stripping away that context, Mantello dissolves the contrasts the play requires to let us firmly grasp exactly what these characters are dealing with - and how they’re united - across the decades.
This is, perhaps, even more important in New York than it was in London, where the play premiered at the Royal Court in December 2008. For American audiences, who’ve patiently endured countless plays on this topic since The Boys in the Band came on the scene in 1968, anything that helps differentiate this gay problem play from any of scores of others that make the same pronouncements about the inward and outward prejudices homosexuals face will be a tremendous help. And though it’s accomplished in its way, Campbell’s play needs some help that Mantello simply hasn’t provided.
In the late 1950s, the married Philip and Sylvia must contend with Philip’s taboo yearnings for Oliver, which are rotting away both his insides and the rusty bonds that barely hold together his marriage. Fifty years later, Philip and Oliver are recovering from their devastating break-up, trying to move on with their lives despite the feelings that remain between them, while the semi-interested Sylvia looks on and tries to help the best she can while nursing her own love life. The scenes alternate between then and now, showing how most solutions only lead to more problems, and that ignoring the natural will only cause it to nag at you for years to come.
The power of the acting does smooth over some of the play’s artificially rough edges. Dancy gives a tender, haunted rendering of two men at crumbling crossroads, and makes the earlier one almost a tragic figure by way of the self-denying choices he makes to straighten himself out (both literally and figuratively). Whishaw’s gawky charm energizes both Olivers by transforming one into an unintentionally destructive force and the other from an ostensible predator to a man of deep emotional convictions. Riseborough crafts the greatest distinction between her characters, showing how the woman behind the men in 1958 could be a cold scold but today is more actively involved whether or not she wants to be. Adam James delivers several restrained turns in a series of deceptively flashy supporting roles that range from an enterprising rent boy to a chilling doctor.
They would all, however, benefit from being surrounded by a more decisive production that helps particularize a story that doesn’t always convince us it needs to be told. Like another recent opening looking at angsts and desires unspoken in contemporary England, Happy Now?, The Pride too often feels that it’s shouting from the hills things we’ve been listening to on our iPods for years. For the play to overcome the considerable cultural differences that are introduced on journeys across the Atlantic, it needs direction and design much sharper than it receives here.
There should never be a question as to where, when, or why something is happening. This muddiness makes it difficult to assess the play’s larger and more important questions, about how far we’ve actually come at accepting others and ourselves, and whether all of the progress we’ve made toward that tolerance is necessarily good. Even if much of this is old news in New York, rebroadcasts are welcome under the right circumstances. With Campbell’s voice and the actors’ rich talents, the messages come across with clarion intensity. But Mantello hasn’t gone the extra mile to ensure the transmission is completely static-free.