by Alexi Kaye Campbell
Directed by Joe Mantello
MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

The script of The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell—his debut play—has been imported from London’s West End by off-Broadway’s MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, and the cast are all Brits, but they’re not the Royal Court originals and the production is new, direction by American Joe Mantello. (For the thumbnail synopsis, in the following italics, I’ve borrowed a few key sentences from a wonderfully deft thumbnail description I found in David Benedict’s Variety review of the UK debut, though in plain text I’ve interpolated the US cast names and adjusted for differences in the productions.)

                  Well-heeled, confident '50s Philip (Hugh Dancy) is married to Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough), who is illustrating a children's book by Oliver (Ben Whishaw). In [the] opening scene—all brittle chat in cut-glass accents—the witty banter of their initial meeting is gradually undercut by unspoken tension that isn’t exactly dissipated by Philip saying, “As long as I don't discover you've been having a torrid affair behind my back, we should get on just fine.”

                  In fact, as becomes clear in the electrifying gaze between the two men, the unspoken tension in the room isn't heterosexual.

                  The action then jump-cuts to the present, where Philip and Oliver—re-imagined as contemporary figures, or perhaps just present-day characters poetically sharing the same names—still in their mid-30s—now live together. Their relationship, however, is seriously jeopardized by Oliver's addiction to casual sex, a conundrum more worrying to their friend Sylvia than Oliver himself.

                  Although, at first, the play's principal relationships appear to be between the men, Campbell is cunningly misleading the audience. Sylvia grows in awareness and power. She is the most generous, least self-deceiving character, and in both eras, she drives the men toward truth.

                  The two eras cast light upon each other. The societal repression of the '50s is neatly paralleled with the self-repression of gay men in the 2000s.

                  I cite Mr. Benedict’s review not only because of its, for me, time-saving concision, but because his review is just so damned enthusiastic. It’s hard to know if anything was lost in the transition, because the cast of authentic Brits and Mantello’s direction seem to be right in the zone: there doesn’t seem to be a disparity of tone or an inadvertent “Americanization” of rhythm. Yet I found my reaction to The Pride to be ultimately a cool one. Say what one will about Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (currently and coincidentally in revival by the Transport Group), there is about it, even 40 years after its debut, the freshness of something breaking down a wall and making us look at a subset of society with enlightened eyes, of taking us to a place we haven’t been before.

                  And while I certainly understand the passion that makes a writer explore the kinds of concepts that inform The Pride, I found that the scenes set in the 50s to be preaching to the converted, and the contemporary scenes to form, well, dare I say it, just another play about gay relationships in New York City—with the recurring themes overwritten and hammered home a bit much in each era.

                  Ironically the parts of the play that made me sit up alert and clock something a bit new and bracing, involved the fourth actor, Adam James, who plays three supporting roles: first—in the present day—an actor that new millennium Oliver has hired for sexual role-playing games; then a straight magazine editor who at first seems a boor, hoping to cash in on the gay bandwagon, but whose waters run deeper than we’d think; and in the past, somewhat chillingly, a psychiatrist whose specialty is aversion therapy. Small scenes, but here are the places where the playwright Mr. Campbell soars and scores.

                  Small victories…but telling ones too, and not its not so bad for a first play to have three bold, brilliant strokes punctuating competent dramaturgy and uniquely theatrical conception. It’s enough to make me curious about what Mr. Campbell may come up with next.

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