Sunday, June 18, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Both Sides of Love" (on Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride)

both sides of love
Alexi Kaye Campbell The Pride / Beverly Hills, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts/Lovelace Studio Theater, June 8-July 9, 2017; the performance Howard Fox and I saw was the matinee on June 17, 2017
Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning British play The Pride, presents gay male love, as Judy Collins long-ago sang, “from both sides now”—the “sides” not merely representing the different viewpoints of the lovers involved but through the lens of time.
     The play begins in the London of 1958, in the almost absurdly staid and uptight period when homosexual love was not only illegal but could lead to long prison terms and complete societal shunning, often ending in suicide. The seemingly happily married Sylvia (Jessica Collins) has invited her much loved writer employer, Oliver (Augustus Prew), for whose new children’s book she is providing drawings, to her and her husband’s home for drinks and a dinner date at a nearby Italian restaurant, which the often sarcastic Philip (Neil Bledsoe)  describes as actually being Serbian.
      The evening promises to a simple night out with friends. But we immediately recognize that there is something amiss. Sylvia seems almost desperate to make sure that Philip likes Oliver as much as she does—or maybe even more. And she appears almost to be checking up on them as, dressing to go out, she slips in and out of the room to see how things are going, the three of them, in the process of slurping down drink and after drink; Philip and Oliver, it should be noted, drink scotch, while she prefers gin. If that may only be a standard male/female difference, we do begin to observe a startling change in personality as the two men, chugging down their Scotches, begin to verbally dance around each other, Philip clearly lowering the register of his voice, while Oliver—a bit less uptight than his new acquaintance—blurts out messages that confuse and slightly stun Philip. As Philip almost immediately admits “I’ve never met anyone like you before,” while soon after insisting that Oliver seems like someone he has known all his life. The confusion of his two observations expresses it all: his head is in a kind of spin.
      I don’t know what it was truly like for British gays meeting for the first time in 1958; but surely the Americans I knew who had lived through the same period were a lot better at what was then described as “dropping beads,” either intentionally or unintentionally releasing bits of  coded information that revealed their sexual orientation. And surely for many gays in Britain, particularly given the close all-male schoolboy ties, as E. M. Forster has revealed in his book and later film, Maurice, there surely were gatherings where such closeted gay men might be able to meet to express their emotional release; I certainly saw that often as a young gay man in the US, just a few years after the date in which this play begins.  
      Oliver, in fact, does express just such a coded statement in his story about traveling to Delos, Greece, where he experienced a kind of vision and hearing a voice that told him that eventually things would be all right or at least different, that the sleepless nights he has spent will have been for some purpose. Although not quite admitting to such “sleepless” nights, Philip has shared his sense of unhappiness with his life as a real estate agent, and expresses his envy of Oliver’s ability to travel and experience things outside of the confines of the British Empire. Neither of these men, we immediately recognize, just as Sylvia has perceived, are particularly happy.
     We later discover that Philip also has spent many such a sleepless night, and so too has his increasingly unhappy wife, who desires children and feels sorry for her seemingly lonely husband. In short, Sylvia seems to know more about Philip’s self-doubts that he admits to himself.
      In the very next scene we are suddenly catapulted to what seems an entirely different world. Another Philip and Oliver, living in 2008, are fighting to keep their short-lived gay relationship together. But the world is utterly different. The problem between this Philip and Oliver does not concern their inability to express their love but centers on the contemporary Oliver’s inability to resist the sexual advances of nearly anyone he encounters, including individuals with whom he also cannot imagine as beings whom he might actually be able to love.
     The scene begins, in fact, with an absurdly dressed call-boy (Matthew Wilkas) regaled in Nazi attire demanding total obedience from the self-hating man who has called up his existence—with the help of the internet, of course. Suddenly, in the very midst of their ridiculous sexual drama, Oliver loses all desire to play along and almost like a young boy demands it all come to a stop: “abracadabra,” he shouts over and over, demanding that it all go away. The young man who he has hired for the evening demands that he get paid anyway and insists upon a drink before he exits. He’s a human being too, he comically pouts, a man who has tried to make a career as an actor but having failed, has turned to acting out the sexual fantasies of other men, reminding one of the numerous absurd role-playing scenarios that Mary Woronov was forced to enact in Paul Bartel’s film Eating Raoul.
      Philip, who has just left Oliver, returns to pick up some books and observes his lover in a position that is precisely what has forced him to leave Olivier for the third time—this time, he insists, permanently. Olivier recognizes his behavior for just what it is, but like the Philip of the first scene, is so equally self-loathing, that he cannot resist anyone’s desire, even men who are absolutely ugly and detestable. He pleads with Philip not to go, insisting that it is really him whom he loves, but this Philip, just as ridiculously inflexible as the 1958 married man, cannot forgive his lover.
     Things have changed remarkably; men can now have sex without being arrested, and in the new hyper-sexual world, as we are shown later, almost anything is allowed. But the personal dynamics of love between a couple, any couple, homosexual or straight, remain basically the same. The pride of which the 50s Oliver dreamed has been lost among the vast amount of choices available. Open sexuality does not necessarily solve the problems of love and sexual choices.
     Sometimes rather gracefully and other times somewhat didactically and a bit clumsily, the rest of Campbell’s play represents its characters through a series of Schnitzler-like circlings between those of the 1950s and those of our current decade, each of them briefly seeming to imagine the other’s presence (this play was performed at the Wallis Annenberg’s Lovelace Stage in a theater-in-the-square production), helping to express how the 50-year period has made changes for the better and, possibly, for the worst.
      If the painfully confused and conflicted Philip of 1958 is almost despicable in his self-hate, at one point just before the intermission brutally raping Oliver with the love-hate emotions that almost all rapists embrace, at least he had an identity that might give him meaning and focus, even as it did not allow him his true being. And this early Philip, by the second act is determined to maintain that false and reassuring identity, even at the expense of a terrifying conversion therapy that forces him to entertain his fantasies between injections which lead to serious vomiting—despite the fact that his wife, in leaving, has given him the assurance that things will eventually be better.
      If the Olivers and Philips of 2008 are more comfortable with their true sexual natures, they are still unsure of how to express those selves and what they mean. Oliver is now as clinging to his actress friend Sylvia as the earlier Philip was to his wife. And it is she, who herself is entering in a new relationship that may result to a joyful marriage, who helps Oliver to perceive that if he is serious about a long-term relationship he must give up his own addiction to quick sexual pleasures and abuse.
      Campbell does not answer, fortunately, how any of these characters will finally find the love they need. But by play’s end, each has forgiven one another and themselves enough that we can imagine that Philip and Oliver may get back to together—that Oliver’s sleeping on Philip’s couch will lead eventually to again sharing Philip’s bed—and that Sylvia may find true love with her young Italian Mario.
     The performances by all four actors (three playing two characters each, and Wilkas playing three figures) are superb, and Michael Arden’s direction is fluid and convincing. But despite this, the play is not a great one, often resorting to representing its figures as types rather than the truly confused beings they represent. And the general unhappiness of people in love seems to be a linking connection between all the play’s characters, a common stereotype of gay existence which I would like to see changed, even if it may be more interesting to be unhappy than relatively joyful living in one’s own skin.
     We know, moreover, that there were many brave gays, in both periods, who not only chose their own courses, such as Forester’s Maurice, but lived out long lives of satisfaction. Strangely, it is the simple-minded editor of a young men’s magazine, Peter, who expresses this in Campbell’s drama. Although totally straight and somewhat homophobic, Peter recounts his own “strange” connection to the gay world by describing the death by AIDS of his uncle when he as 12. His mother, who insisted he accompany her to the hospital to see the dying man, had never told her children about her brother’s sexual choice, but in the dying man’s eyes Peter realizes the joy and acceptance of his uncle’s life. Another elderly man, sitting nearby, smiles at Peter, and when the boy asks his mother why, he is told that the man, whose existence had never been mentioned, is his uncle’s long-time partner.
      Acceptance, forgiveness, and, yes, pride in one’s own being, however, are Campbell’s central concerns; and those issues are always worth reiterating, particularly given the long, long voyage it took for gays to feel at home in the societies in which  they exist. For most of the gays in the world, Campbell reminds us at one point, pain, isolation, and loneliness still remain the dominate modes of life.

Los Angeles, June 18, 2017

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