Review: Michael Arden Directs Beautifully Poetic 'THE PRIDE' at The Wallis

Review: Michael Arden Directs Beautifully Poetic 'THE PRIDE' at The Wallis

Michael L. Quintos

  • OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic

Fittingly, as most of the world celebrates Gay Pride month, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills is presenting an absorbing, beautifully-poetic production of playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell's drama "THE PRIDE," which continues its Los Angeles-area premiere through July 9, 2017. Highly-stylized yet riveting and universally approachable, this new production of the play that originated in the UK features a superb cast smartly directed by the Wallis' Artist-in-Residence Michael Arden, who previously gave new life to Wallis' revival productions of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and the Deaf West pre-Broadway production of SPRING AWAKENING.

As the audience enters the smaller, more intimate space of the Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis, one immediately notices the glass-panelled flooring right at the center of the space (the play is presented in the round—well, the square—marked by this glass floor) that feels like it could give way and plummet all in view at any moment. Within this space, it is populated by various pieces of clear transparent modern furniture you'll likely get at high-end stores. The limited number of seats that surround this glass stage cascade upwards like stadium seating within this small black-box theater. 

All of this, of course, ensures that the play's actions (and lengthy, subtext-heavy conversations) happen literally within inches of audience members sitting in the front rows, and is in plain, unobstructed view for everyone else behind them. It's clear—no pun intended—that this purposeful, not-so-subtle scenic design choice (credited to Arden) is meant to give audience members direct, unshielded access to the play's characters, where we see their raw emotions—or their attempt at suppressing them—remarkably unfiltered. There's nowhere to hide for these characters whenever they're in view.

Funny enough, as it turns out, this transparency makes it easier to witness that each character has lots to hide themselves. 

"THE PRIDE"—which feels like a fresh take on gay-centric storylines we've seen before—is structured as two parallel storylines that take place in England on two different time periods, seamlessly (but stylistically) transitioning from one era to the other. There are plenty of contrasts and similarities that criss-cross between the 50-year time span, as the play tries to dissect the idea of "Pride" as it applies to characters that live in two distinct realities that have differing attitudes towards homosexuality. 

As one may already predict, being gay is oh-so different in 1958 than how it is in 2008.

The play begins in 1958 where we meet dashingly handsome Philip (Neal Bledsoe) and his perfectly-posh wife Sylvia (Jessica Collins). Sylvia, armed with a knack of holding her opinions inward, has arranged for a dinner outing to introduce her husband to her work boss Oliver (Augustus Prew), to whom she feels he would get along with splendidly. When the two men finally meet, there's a palpable... something that everyone in the room (yes, including poor Sylvia) can feel. 

And thus begins a secret, torrid affair between Philip and Oliver, both of whom approach their on-the-down-low relationship in considerably different degrees of acceptance. Philip, wary of societal constructs and his genuine affection for his wife, wants to put a stop to his undeniable attraction to Oliver. Oliver, on the other hand, is already hurting deeply for having to hide how he feels and for who he is. Because of how much he loves Philip, Oliver is willing to put up with secret infrequent meet-ups and the Philip's fluctuating moods.

Meanwhile, in 2008, we encounter a modern-day version of Oliver, a perpetually horny out-and-proud man who has just weathered a very harsh breakup with his now ex-boyfriend Philip. Philip, we learn, has grown tired of Oliver's cheating and sexually promiscuous ways and has decided to finally break up and move out of their flat for good. 

Naturally, Philip proves his point when on a visit to collect the remainder of his belongings, he walks in on Oliver getting it on with another one of his many anonymous on-line hookups, a random hot guy who was instructed to come dressed as a Nazi captain (the reliably funny Matthew Wilkas)—which Oliver later admits is an inexplicable fetish he can't seem to shake off. In between repeat porn viewings and multiple random sexual encounters, Oliver often turns to his straight bestie Sylvia for advice. Sylvia, for her part, does her best to sway Oliver away from the hookups, using her own relationship with her current boyfriend as an example of an alternative way to go. Oliver, though, seems to be amused as his BFF's conventional trajectory for achieving happily ever after.

Caught between 1958 and 2008 are connective ghosts of these characters that seem to speak to their time-separated counterparts in breathy whispers (while doing a neat costume/set change, of course). Are they forewarning their respective doppelgängers of impending/past doom? Are they cries of anguish and despair? Are they rooting for them to choose a better path?

Visually compelling and genuinely intriguing with every scene, this production of "THE PRIDE" is a fascinatingly-staged drama that juxtaposes past and present with direct through-lines from the repressed lives of the past to the more open lives of the 21st century, and how the past definitely affects the future. Almost like a before-and-after case-study (and using the same character names for both eras to hammer home this point), the play posits a theory in dramatic fashion: that there are debilitating downsides to both the hiding of one's true feelings as well as the succumbing to them with no abandon. 

The past is marked by clandestine meetings, secret rendezvous, and subtle gestures—a direct result of having to always be slathered in fear of being caught doing something that society deems taboo and deplorable. Even worse, there is constant nervousness that reputations and livelihoods will be irreversibly ruined when LGBT citizens live their truths. The Oliver of 1958, however, is willing to sacrifice everything for a chance at genuine, out-in-the-open love. Philip, however, feeling he has more to lose, refuses to give in to Oliver's pleas, even if it means leading a life of unhappiness and omitting the truth. Unable to continue lying about himself, Philip turns to drastic measures to ensure he can no longer be tempted to be his true self. Sylvia, meanwhile, is left behind to try to pick up the pieces of her broken heart.

Fifty years later, unhappiness seems to still be a possibility, despite the forward march of progress. Characters' modern counterparts are indeed far less restricted and are living more openly as self-identified gay citizens. However, Oliver has exchanged secretive lives of the past with one that strips away real connectivity with the shallowness of catering to one's basest desires and proclivities. 

In the 2008 depicted in the play—where the debate over gay marriage still looms ahead—the biggest obstacle to happiness for gay men, as seen with Oliver, seems to be the almost TOO open nature of online hookups ruining the prospect of monogamy. It's so easy for an out-and-proud guy like Oliver to get as many men to bed as he wants... why limit himself to just one dude like straight people? This doesn't sit well with the Philip of 2008 who seems to have learned from the lessons of the past: to cherish the idea that you can live your life openly in love with ONE other man. 

Ouch. Is that it? Are gay men doomed to suffer loneliness no matter what era they live in? Geez, what a sad notion. Luckily, like all of us that were living in the bubble of summer 2008, the play ends on a more hopeful note.

Over the course of its captivating two hour and twenty minute running time (plus an intermission), "THE PRIDE" entertains with a steady stream of punchy visuals combined with stellar acting performances. On the technical side, Danae Iris McQueen's terrific period costumes help distinguish and reiterate the more structured classic wardrobe of the 1950's against the more casual, hipster looks of 2008-era London. More than any other element, McQueen's costumes determine immediately which era the play is currently in, a very helpful device considering the play's constant time jumps. Travis Hagenbuch's stunning lighting designs also help distinguish mood and messaging. When the floor is flooded with light from below, it feels like time travel.

And arguably, the four-person cast assembled for "THE PRIDE" is really the play's most exciting assets. Collins is luminous as both an attentive 1958 wife and an attentive 2008 best friend, giving her two distinct Sylvias likable qualities that easily earns audience affection. Scene-stealing Wilkas enters the room with one outlandish character after another, providing the play with some much-needed, well-placed lighthearted moments. He is as adept at playing a Nazi-for-hire as he is a douchey men's magazine editor. Bledsoe—full of stature and smolder yet with eyes that betray a sincere vulnerability—is incredible as two distinct versions of Philip, one that you may fear and lust after equally and one you may fall for instantly. And finally, Prew is just spectacular in his time-separated versions of Oliver. It is stunning to see him switch from slightly timid to super confident with just a switch of a costume. 

While the play could use a few snips here and there dialogue-wise and, perhaps, a less abrupt ending, "THE PRIDE," overall, is an engrossing, cleverly devised drama that shies away from easy stereotypes or the usual gay-tragedy tropes but instead offers fresh perspectives on gay-centric love stories via parallels in the past and present. Under Arden's direction, the play takes on an enthralling, poetic quality that made watching it feel like a special theatrical experience. With the added bonus of some winning performances from its cast, the production currently at the Wallis definitely deserves your rapt attention, even more so now as we wind down a month-long celebration of what it means to have pride.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from THE PRIDE by Kevin Parr, courtesy of The Wallis.

Performances of THE PRIDE continue at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through July 9, 2017. For tickets or for more information, please go to thewallis.org.
 

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