It’s hard to believe that The Pride, which opened at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, is Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play. It’s a work of subtlety and sophistication, an exploration of the gay culture past and present told in an ambitious dual structure. First, we’re in 1958 London, where we meet a children’s book writer Oliver (waiflike Ben Whishaw), his prim but bohemian-leaning illustrator Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough), and Sylvia’s uptight real estate agent husband Philip (Hugh Dancy). The two guys strike up a natural rapport that, for the era, is anything but natural. (Think Far From Heaven redux.) Before long, the scene shifts and we meet the same three characters in the present day (but still in their mid-30s): Philip, a photojournalist, has broken up with Oliver, a tabloid writer addicted to anonymous sex, while mother hen Sylvia looks on.
Campbell means to explore how culture shapes behavior and character, and for the most part he succeeds. Modern Oliver meets with the blunt-speaking editor of a Maxim-like magazine (the versatile Adam James, who plays a succession of other characters) who wants to commission a piece on ”gay sex for the straight man.” There’s a telling and very moving scene in which 1958 Philip meets with an aversion therapist (James again) to try to cure himself of his homosexual urges.
Whishaw may be a wisp on stage, but he gives a full-bodied performance that rivets your attention. Riseborough shuffles seamlessly between the two Sylvias (the earlier one is more self-conscious about putting on a posh accent, as befits the class-conscious times). And Dancy, who could use a tad more romantic spark in his first meeting with Oliver, grows into the role as his character comes to terms with his deeply conflicted feelings.
Under Joe Mantello’s tight direction, the cast clicks through its scenes and manages to disguise some of the play’s more glaring shortcomings. For instance, the contemporary Philip is a cipher; it’s a mystery why he would stay with a serial cad like Oliver. Moreover, Oliver’s evolution from repressed gay man in the ’50s to modern-day sex addict seems more like something out of a Focus on the Family report than a gay-friendly drama. Ultimately, the new versions of the central trio don’t have much to say about contemporary gay life aside from hammering home a rather mundane look-how-far-we’ve-come point. But most of these objections crop up only later, long after one has exited the theater. In the moment, The Pride grabs you with it’s considerable intelligence and heart. B