The Pride, penned by Alexi Kaye Campbell, quietly premiered on February 16th at the Lucille Lortel Theater starring British actors Hugh Dancy (known from King Arthur and Evening) and Ben Whishaw (of Bright Star fame). The plot, set in the United Kingdom, juxtaposes the lives of homosexual men in the 1950s and the 2000s, or more precisely, 1958 and 2008.
The 1950s Philip, played by Dancy, first meets Whishaw's Oliver over cocktails. Plumes of smoke snake upward in a sparsely furnished, dimly lit drawing room as Philip makes stilted small talk with Oliver, his wife's colleague. The wife in question, Sylvia -- played with a nervous frivolity by Andrea Riseborough -- senses a tension between the two men and brings it up to her husband later. Philip dodges the question, but the audience recognizes the sexual nature of the tension between the two men, struggling under a tight seal of denial and repression.
Cut to the next scene and a Nazi officer shouts "Lick my boots" at a man clad in white briefs, crouched on the floor. The semi-nude man is the Oliver of 2008, a rampantly sexual and disheveled journalist, recently broken up with his boyfriend of two years, and ready to experiment with some role-playing S & M.
Oliver's willingness to experiment, along with a compulsion to satisfy every man who comes his way, is the reason that Philip has left him. Whishaw plays the 2008 Oliver with a brazen sexuality at odds with an emotional vulnerability, a man desperately afraid of being unloved and therefore clinging to anyone who shows a glimmer of attraction.
Campbell uses the same actors with the same names as completely separate characters in two different time periods to highlight the evolution of homosexuality's perception. The play not only contrasts the social mores of the different eras, but also the expectations and behaviors of gay men. The 1958 Philip represses his identity to the extent of acting homophobic, and the 2008 Oliver views sexual encounters with the same ambivalence as trips to the bathroom.
The Oliver and Philip of the earlier era exist in a time when homosexuality is barely acknowledged, and viewed with revulsion as something deviant when it is recognized. The modern day Oliver and Philip live in a time when homosexuality has largely been accepted, but they still struggle to find the boundaries of their monogamous relationship.
All throughout the play, the characters seem to possess an awareness of the larger picture, a sense of history and progress, a collectiveness of thought for what all those who came before them suffered. That awareness might be jarring or unrealistic, but instead adds texture and universality to the story. In the '50s, Oliver recounts a gauzy epiphany that something in the future will "make all the difficulties we now feel, all the fears we now hold on to and the sleepless nights we now have seem almost worthwhile."
The 1950s Oliver strives for honesty in his relationship and his identity, and wants to know that there's more to being a homosexual man than being one of those anonymous "men in the park." He struggles for that elusive, titular "pride." The 1950s Philip, on the other hand, brutally strangles his own sexuality, cutting down Oliver and all other gay men in the process of trying to be "normal". That is not to say he is an unsympathetic character. His wife, Sylvia, fears that he is lonely, and the rigid vulnerability with which Dancy portrays the character makes us pity him rather than condemn him.
The couple in 2008 grapple with maintaining a relationship in a post-sexual revolution era in which anything goes. There is a similar struggle for sexual identity, but in an era when they don't have to hide anymore, an era in which they live their lives very much in the public sphere (including a Gay Pride Parade).
All three leads perform exceptionally, but Whishaw stands out as he etches the image of a lonely writer in the 1950s, then erases it again to be replaced by a flirty, desperate and coy journalist of the 2000s. Dancy is able to draw sympathy even in the difficult role of a conflicted, cowardly and self-loathing man, and Riseborough breezily transforms from a stoic 1950s wife to a savvy modern girl.
Despite a vagueness in some of the dialogue in Campbell's play, some bright passages illuminate the struggles for identity, honesty and pride that the characters and the people they represent face. Despite the anguish and estrangement Oliver, Philip and Sylvia suffer, the line that echoes throughout the play is: "It will be all right."