Retro Virus

Terrence McNally's Tony-winning play Love! Valour! Compassion!, now running at Bienvenue Theatre, opened off-Broadway less than a decade ago, but it already feels dated. The script focuses on eight gay men who spend their summer weekends at a beach house hideaway two hours north of New York City. Inside this all-too-familiar hothouse of upper-middle-class gays, McNally's eclectic group of characters fall in love, get naked, philander and talk.

And talk and talk and talk. For three and a half hours, including two intermissions, they talk -- about love, the goodness of life, the meaning of life, AIDS, death, the meaning of death and so on.

Thankfully the hunky Bienvenue cast has the intelligence and grace to pull off these endless monologues and conversations. With the help of director Ken Williamson, the actors even manage to make McNally's self-righteous clunkers -- the playwright calls those who don't become AIDS activists "bystander[s] of the genocide" -- sound plausible.

The big, blowsy beach house (suggested by Christian DeVries's clever black-box-style set, which hides fun roll-away gadgets and magical fold-out platforms) masks all sorts of loneliness and pain. The home belongs to Gregory (Mikel Reper), the aging, though beautiful, dancer, who is afflicted with choreographer's block. Try as he might, he can't work out the final steps to the piece he's putting together. To make things worse, his blind heartthrob of a boyfriend, Bobby, is falling for a much younger dancer.

Played with careful earnestness by the sweet-faced Tye Blue, Bobby fills up the room with tender intentions. He literally kisses the house hello in prayerful gratitude when he arrives from the city. But his innocence cannot save him from his baser instincts: This golden boy just can't stay faithful, especially near Ramon (Carlos Campos), the Puerto Rican rogue who runs around the house at midnight. Campos's buff-bodied Latino dancer is utterly soulless, though completely forgivable, even as he takes advantage of Bobby in the most cavalier way. There's something profoundly human about Ramon, who struts about wearing nothing but a towel but is drawn to the one man who can't see how good he looks in all his glorious nakedness.

Apparently immune to the sexual tensions around him, Buzz (Randall Jobe) sleeps in another part of the house. Flamboyant and dumpy, Buzz is HIV-positive and loveless. He's a Cinderella character, ready to help anyone who needs him, while waiting stoically for his own prince to come. Full of screeching irony, Buzz declares that every British actress is an old "lessy" and that he's "sick and tired of straight people ....They're everywhere!" This "love child of Judy Garland and Liberace," as one character calls him, makes the world laugh as he cries inside.

Sleeping spoon-style in yet another bedroom are Arthur (Kevin White) and Perry (Mike Evans). Together for 14 years, these two khaki-wearing men are so intimate they can trim each other's ear hairs, while still adoring one another. White's intelligent and subtle Arthur is the model companion. Even though Perry is an annoying, philandering pessimist, not even randy Ramon can tempt Arthur away.

Add to this group twin brothers John and James, both played by the versatile DeVries, and Gregory has himself a house full of guests, all making numerous life-shaking discoveries about love, life and death as they come and go over the course of three acts. Meanwhile, Gregory continues to work on his dance (Reper's silently tentative movements across the stage lend a lush, visual urgency to this show). Slowly, over the course of the summer, his housemates find what they're looking for in the haunted corners of his vast home, as he finds what he needs inside himself. It's a predictable and painfully sentimental story. But the earnest cast has found something surprisingly real in McNally's tale, and they pull it off with a great deal of valor and passion.

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Lee Williams