Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, about the intertwined lives of eight gay men who share three summer holiday weekends together in a spacious country house outside of New York City, began life as an Off Broadway stage play in 1994 and went on to become a Tony-winning Broadway hit. Under the graceful stage direction of Joe Mantello, the fluid ensemble cast — including Randy Becker, Stephen Bogardus, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Justin Kirk, Nathan Lane, and Stephen Spinella — conveyed an approachability that made the particular fears, desires, and pleasures of their characters accessible to the broadest of audiences.
This history lesson, while not inherently necessary for appreciating the film (once again directed by Mantello, with a screenplay by McNally), is offered because in the three years between Love!‘s turns on stage and screen, crucial advances in medical research have changed the treatment of AIDS and HIV — in drama as well as in life. Too, in the interim, the unavailability of McNally’s stage muse and Birdcage star Lane to join the rest of the original cast (for murky, depends-on-whom-you-talk-to reasons) resulted in the substitution of Jason Alexander in the showy central role of Buzz, the hyper-verbally funny, show-tune-loving, HIV-positive sentimentalist.
As a result, the script, with its emphasis on the death sentence that is HIV and the gusts of anger, sadness, and defiance that accompany such fatality, feels oddly, gently out of date now — more The Boys in the Band than a gay Big Chill. (Hickey and Spinella play a ”role model” longtime couple; Bogardus and Kirk are the welcoming home owner and his young, blind, unfaithful lover; Glover does masterful double duty as a bitter English composer and his sweet, dying twin; Becker spends considerable time naked as a seductive Puerto Rican dancer.) But the great revelation in this version is the terrific, beautifully controlled work of Alexander — Seinfeld‘s most gifted actor, whose recent movie roles have not allowed him to show his range. His performance is a thrill to watch, a virtuoso turn all the more impressive for blending so comfortably into a tight preexisting cast.
McNally and Mantello, working with cinematographer Alik Sakharov and production designer Francois Seguin, make resourceful use of the setting — the sheltering house and grounds — to open up the action. All the prettiest circle-of-friends movies, after all, feature the kind of better homes and gardens that inspire decorating ideas between emotional confrontations. And these men not only demonstrate valour!, they exhibit good taste!, too. B