I love movies. I truly do. But for me there’s nothing that can match seeing actors cut loose from the confines of the screen. Film actors can be at the mercy of the greater good. Their performances can be cut to suit a director’s vision, but on stage they are the masters of their own fate. Seeing actors do their thing in real time is an experience everyone should seek out. And right now the production they should run to is “The Pride” at the Lucille Lortel theater in New York City.

A very fine cast of British actors has been assembled in the American debut of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “The Pride”. And no, it’s not about lions, as some people have asked me, but two young lions of the theater rule the stage in this play about the right to own who you are.

Ben Whishaw (Bright Star) and Hugh Dancy (Adam) play opposite each other portraying gay men in two different eras, 1958 and 2008.  They’re given excellent support by Andrea Riseborough playing the important women in their lives and Adam James who gleefully plays everyone else.

The fifty year span shows how much and how little the world has changed. The reality of London in 1958 for a gay man is that he could be arrested, subjected to brutal “therapy” or imprisoned. In 2008 times have changed but the characters face new sets of challenges in a rapidly changing landscape.

Campbell’s play is an actor’s dream. He creates dual roles for the actors in which they take us with them on their journey of love, self discovery and the pursuit of human dignity.

Ben Whishaw plays Oliver. Oliver in 1958 is a children’s book author who has come to the realization, the epiphany, that he has a right to be who he is even if that brutal beast called Society disagrees. He wants to live a true, honest life.

Oliver in 2008 is a journalist living in a more open society. But this Oliver is self destructive, drawn to meaningless sexual encounters that bring him nothing but the end of his relationship with his lover, Philip.

In 1958, Hugh Dancy’s Philip is the repressed husband of Sylvia, an actress turned artist who illustrated Oliver’s latest book. When Oliver and Philip meet the attraction is immediate. Oliver is thrilled to meet a man he can love with his heart and soul. The problem is the man he loves is consumed by self loathing.
Philip cannot believe he has the right to love.

Hugh Dancy is very fine as both of the Philips, but he has a great deal more to work with  as Philip in 1958. A scene where Philip seeks out a “cure” through aversion therapy is harrowing. Dancy, remarkably and beautifully contained portrays a man going off to war, except the enemy he’s chosen is a love that he’s convinced he has to purge.

Where Oliver in 1958 is self aware, Oliver in 2008 is needy and immature. He relies on his friend Sylvia to get him through the pain of losing Philip even as he stubbornly clings to the behavior that destroyed his relationship with the man he loves.

The scenes from 1958 and 2008 move back and forth more swiftly as the play progresses. There comes a point where Whishaw moves from Oliver in 2008 to Oliver in 1958 without skipping a beat. He emotionally shape shifts and sheds the modern Oliver right in front of our eyes.

Whishaw has done beautiful work on film in Perfume, Brideshead Revisited and Bright Star. On stage he’s truly extraordinary. He steps into both Oliver’s’ emotional skin and makes it impossible to take our eyes off him.

Dancy, who did wonderful work in the film Adam, beautifully conveys the confusion and pain of both Philips. He’s wonderful to watch.

The remarkable thing about the performances from both actors is there’s no confusion with the use of the dual characters. Whishaw and Dancy are so good at delineating their roles that they could do the play in jeans and tee shirts and we’d know which Oliver and which Philip we’re watching.

Joe Mantello who directed one of my favorite productions “Take Me Out” has directed “The Pride” with an almost cinematic eye. I like the blending of the two time frames where characters from 1958 and 2008 are on stage at the same time. Mantello clearly has let his actors’ breathe. The beauty of the performances is a testament to their talent and Mantello’s respect for that talent.

And then there’s the play. Alexi Kaye Campbell has written a play that is moving and filled with wit and humanity. It’s about love. Not just romantic love, but the love and respect we all must have for who we are. It’s a cautionary tale of the misery that can overwhelm us if we’re not allowed to simply be. The play’s protagonists are gay men, but their stories, their struggles to be true to themselves speak to us all.

“The Pride” is a limited engagement running to March 28.


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