Love! Valour! Compassion!
There were two watershed moments for gay theater in the 1990s: Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America and Terrence McNally's more intimate Love! Valour! Compassion!, both of which serving simultaneously as furious shots across the country's bow in the culture wars, as well as offering anguished tales of lives and lovers devastated by AIDS. They were quintessentially theatrical works, marked by a Brechtian acknowledgment of the medium's artifice that invited audiences to feel like actual participants in the unfolding drama. And, finally, they were also runaway Broadway hits, inspiring popular touring shows that sent profitable shockwaves rumbling all the way out to Hollywood. While it took a decade to solve Kushner's "gay fantasia," Love! Valour! Compassion! quickly turned around a film adaptation within two years of its legit debut with a slightly pared down script from McNally, direction from Joe Mantello (who helmed the stage version), and almost all of the original cast from its initial Manhattan Theater Club incarnation, even reacquiring Stephen Spinella. The only cast member absent in this version is Nathan Lane, who has, in a horrendous miscalculation, not been replaced but mimicked by Jason Alexander, a fine actor saddled with the unfortunate burden of embodying the flamboyant theater queen Buzz, a role written expressly for Lane by McNally. It's unclear whether Lane refused to participate in the film out of a fear of typecasting or as a result of a squabble with the playwright; what is clear, however, is that the work is missing its invaluable fool, and the film suffers badly for it. The story is still a conventional three-act tragicomedy bringing together six disparate friends and two outsiders over the course of the three major summer holidays. They gather at a beautiful old house in upstate New York owned by the kind-hearted Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), who is currently in a relationship with the blind Bobby (Justin Kirk), who arrives with the upwardly mobile duo of accountant Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) and lawyer Perry (Spinella). Also invited, and unwelcome by most of the men, is the misanthropic John Jeckyll (John Glover), who brings along his young Latin lover Ramon (Randy Becker). The HIV-positive Buzz arrives alone, and, for all of his queenish behavior, he is meant to be a sad window of loneliness and repressed self-loathing into this seemingly inclusive universe. But Alexander is never allowed to make the character fully his own, and Buzz remains an unsatisfying echo of Lane's transcendent work onstage. He does have his moments, most of which come with John's friendly, AIDS-stricken twin brother, James, who arrives in Act Two to give Buzz a kindred spirit in riposte (a highlight of their exchanges: "Is there a British equivalent for machismo?" "No, none at all. Maybe Glenda Jackson.") There's still a good deal of poignancy to be found, probably too much, since Mantello unwisely has tacked on a blandly sappy score that, with its overindulgence in wind chimes, seems to have been lifted from uplifting tripe normally seen on Lifetime. And that's symptomatic of the film's problems: The tone is all wrong. McNally's best work, and this might be his masterpiece, is uncomfortable. It doesn't just prod; it stabs. But Mantello and McNally have sanded down the edges in transferring the play, resulting in a film without much resonance. It's never less than entertaining, but, considering what it should've been, that's also nothing less than a failure. New Line presents Love! Valour! Compassion! in a decent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with serviceable Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include the theatrical trailers for this and other gay-themed films. Keep-case.