Love! Valour! Innovation!

This past January, artistic director Rafael de Acha proudly announced that the Coral Gables-based New Theatre had secured the rights to present an August 1996 production of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! to be directed by company member Bill Yule. De Acha knew that the Caldwell Theatre Company was planning a spring run of this splendidly written work, but he reasoned that the Caldwell, an hour's drive north in Boca Raton, drew a different audience than New Theatre's. De Acha's instincts also told him the comedy-drama about seven gay men who vacation at the house of a friend over the course of three summer weekends was compelling enough to merit two productions in one region in one year. What he didn't know, and what no one back in January knew, was just how high the stakes would be for mounting this second local production.

L!V!C! opened at the Caldwell this past February 11 and ran through March 31 to enthusiastic local reviews -- and puzzled comments from anyone who had also seen the play in New York. Director Michael Hall and designer Tim Bennett paid homage to the original staging, from the body types of the actors to their movements to the set design and lighting. Hearing rumors about duplication, the show's New York director, Joe Mantello, flew down to Boca Raton to gauge the situation for himself. He believed the Caldwell had appropriated 90 percent of his ideas. With the support of his union, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC), Mantello brought charges against the Caldwell for stealing his work. The Caldwell refused to settle out of court; the SSDC has since slapped a $250,000 lawsuit on the theater.

Talk about a daunting task. Not only had the folks at New Theatre committed themselves to tackling McNally's immensely demanding three-act piece -- the script juggles multiple points of view; the action moves freely among the past, present, and future; six of the players cavort at times in the nude -- but now an entirely new approach to the work would have to be taken. As it turns out, New Theatre handled the challenge with flair. Director Yule, set designer Ingrid Angel, and lighting designer Jeff Quinn have made L!V!C!, which debuted on August 3, all their own, giving the play a fresh look while retaining the spirit of playwright McNally's intentions. And a superb cast embraces McNally's language as if they were born to it.

The size of New Theatre's stage helped solve the revision problem. The cozy, 60-seat house sports a boxy, low-to-the-ground platform for performing, with a small backstage area. In comparison, the Manhattan Theatre Club (where the show premiered in November 1994), the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway (where the show transferred in January 1995), and the Caldwell maintain more traditional stages, distanced from the audience by height and boasting wide front sections and conventional backstage wings. By default, New Theatre would never have been able to accommodate the broad dimensions of the New York or Boca Raton productions. Angel also forsakes the greens and blues of the previous sets -- colors that deepened or cooled depending on how they were lit and that marvelously recalled lush summer days and nights. Instead, the designer in this production chooses bleached white walls and polished yellow wood to evoke the languid season during which the play takes place. And New Theatre's set includes platforms, like loft beds, jutting out from the stage walls, representing different floors in the house in which much of the action occurs. Finally, coupled with Jeff Quinn's often high-contrast lighting changes, the set suggests a harsher environment than did the New York or Boca set. Although different, this design works equally well given some of the unsettling themes in McNally's script, including death, aging, and loss.

A presence in the American theater since the Sixties, McNally began his career writing saber-toothed satires that were produced off-Broadway. Initially known as a master of the bitchy one-liner, the playwright expanded his scope by the mid-Eighties. Plays such as Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune (1987), The Lisbon Traviata (1989), and Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), attempt deeper examinations of gay and straight characters struggling to connect with each other. The 1995 Tony Award-winning L!V!C! extends such exploration through a blend of witty repartee and elegiac contemplations about the fragility of life. (The playwright's star continues to rise; his latest play, Master Class, about opera diva Maria Callas, received the 1996 Tony Award, earning McNally this honor again.)

L!V!C! unfolds over three summer weekends, each granted its own act, at the upstate New York home of Gregory Mitchell, a choreographer in his forties struggling to compose a major work. In the midst of this creative crisis, Gregory invites a collection of friends to stay at his house for the Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day holidays.

There's Gregory's boyfriend Bobby (Christopher Carlysle), much younger than Gregory and blind; Arthur (Shepard Koster) and Perry (Wayne LeGette), a couple that's been together for fourteen years; Buzz (George Contini), a walking encyclopedia of musical theater trivia (another character calls him "the love child of Judy Garland and Liberace") who is HIV-positive; John (Matthew Wright), an English expatriate whose relentlessly acid tone alienates everyone; and Ramon (Scott Ernst), a hot-bodied young dancer accompanying John whose youth ignites both lust and a fear of growing old in the other guests. John's HIV-positive twin brother James (also played by Wright) arrives from England to join the mix by Act Two.

Over the course of the summer, the friends and lovers drink good wine, eat rich food, listen to soothing music, lounge in the sun, and skinny-dip -- for the audience's pleasure or irritation, depending on the comfort level with naked male bodies on-stage. They also grapple with loyalty, longing, betrayal, disease, and death. By the end, some of them come to accept themselves; some don't.

A well-tuned ensemble illuminates these diverse personalities, with each actor distinguishing himself at moments throughout the evening. Particularly memorable are LeGette as Perry; Contini, who brings enraged humor and an edgy intensity to the role of Buzz; and Wright, who delivers a brilliant performance in the plum double role of twin brothers. Wright moves from John's calculated viciousness to James's genuine sweetness without skipping a beat.

An ambitious work that at times seems to be trying hard to say too much, L!V!C! is not a flawless play. For one thing, it goes on too long. As in his previous work, McNally doesn't restrain himself from pontificating in places. He allows his characters to indulge in lengthy explanations. The playwright also segues too blithely from moments of tension, like the death of a character's relative or the confession of an adulterous affair, into jokes. Yet when L!V!C! succeeds it verges on breaking new dramatic ground. For example, McNally tells each character's story through the seamless use of asides to the audience. He breathes new life into this cliched device -- which in a less capable writer's hands often seems clunky -- by assigning each character the job of narration at different times. In turn, director Yule handles the various monologues with a conductor's grace.

No one would dispute that L!V!C! addresses gay issues or that it, in part, celebrates the male body. Ultimately, however, the play's message transcends sexual orientation. In his compassionate depiction of a community of friends, each of whom has strengths and foibles, McNally offers a vision of humor, forgiveness, and unconditional love that has the capacity to nourish us all. Go, and be charmed.

Love! Valour! Compassion!
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Bill Yule; with Louis Silvers, Shepard Koster, Wayne LeGette, Matthew Wright, George Contini, Christopher Carlysle, and Scott Ernst. Through October 13. Call 443-5909 for information or see "Calendar Listings.

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