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Playwright Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! spans one summer in the lives of eight gay men, but its depth of emotion and breadth of content makes the play, and this Who Wants Cake? production, feel more like an entire life, lived in the fortunate company of close friends. The world of the play, nineteen-ninety-something in upstate New York, is inconsequential but for faint cultural time stamps and understated New England–nautical fashion influences (by costume designer and choreographer Ben Stange). The summer lake house of Gregory (Keith Allan Kalinowski) and Bobby (Matthew Turner Shelton) is the getaway of choice for a passel of longtime friends and associates: Perry (Richard Payton) and Arthur (John Nowaczyk), who have been together more than a decade; John (Charles VanHoose), with his latest young plaything, Ramon (Vince Kelley), in tow; and Buzz (Joe Plambeck), whose adoration of long-ago Broadway musicals and their leading ladies would be a cliché but for how genuine it is. Spanning the duration of the summer, Memorial Day to Independence Day to Labor Day, the play’s three acts are relatively devoid of dramatic conflict. The men disagree, of course, and confront each other at times; however, the only really palpable danger is from outside influences, the kind with which any adult can relate.

The fear of aging and lost youthful creativity is presented to Gregory, a famous dancer and choreographer seeing the beginning of the end of his career, both in his encroaching physical limitations and in the perceived threat of up-and-comer Ramon. Romantic couplings and fidelity are embarked upon and violated and worked through with difficulty; even Perry and Arthur reflect on past indiscretions. Coping with illness and death is also present: here, AIDS makes Buzz’s vivaciousness feel downright defiant and brings John’s brother to the house in rapidly failing health. The prevalence of and attitudes toward AIDS speak to the unique perspective of a 1990s exclusively gay cohort, and the comfortably frank and close-knit network of who’s slept with whom might feel unfamiliar to some viewers, but the emotions behind these connections are universal; overall, the show is a fair and fond look at people weathering life — and doing it together.

At a surprisingly brisk three hours plus (including its two fleeting intermissions), the play holds plenty of opportunity to flesh out each character, and the ensuing work benefits from exceptional casting by director Keith Paul Medelis. Payton and Nowaczyk play off each other splendidly as a duo finding strength in their familiarity and deep affection, although Perry’s funny but precariously acerbic tongue is an interesting point of contention. In their newer but still committed relationship, Shelton and Kalinowski find common ground in the ways in which deteriorating artiste Gregory and sightless Bobby need to be cared for, while stumbling through the mismatched aspects of their partnership with open tenderness. As the new guy with connections to gain, Kelley is enchantingly coy as he eagerly wields the power available to a youthful object of desire. Tasked with playing a dual role as twins with good reason to be named Jekyll, VanHoose makes his James as generously warm as his John is vile, and he maximizes the contrasts to bring out the worst in a brother trapped in his own intractable odiousness. But always vying for top billing in the viewer’s affection is Plambeck’s excitable Buzz; the actor’s ability to make the character’s potentially cloying one-track mind and galloping enthusiasm into endearing qualities is magnificent to watch.

Narration and commentary are peppered throughout the script, guiding the action and opening up the possibilities for nonlinear reveals, and Medelis uses the abstract presentation to his benefit in his minimal scenic and lighting design. Sturdy modern-look benches, a revelatory vacation sky by scenic painter Katie Orwig, and a heap of pantomime make the events of the play feel dually present and reconstructed. The script’s frequent use of juxtaposition is well met in the director’s bi-level staging, which cleverly transforms the boxy Ringwald space to maximize simultaneous interactions and form dynamic stage pictures from several different angles. Sound design by Plambeck is most notable for its piano music from another room, which helps further the John/James conceit and lessens the gimmicky feel of a character device that proves worthwhile.

As ultimately relatable as this production is, the subject matter and, well, naked honesty may not be an ideal fit for every viewer. The company promises nudity and isn’t shy about delivering — to say that the lake is swimsuit-optional, for example, would falsely suggest that even one of the men wears trunks to take a dip. Yet the result is far from pornographic: these are activities the characters are willing to do in front of each other, essentially swimming and some playful flashing, and they feel in character and not egregious. Here, nakedness is merely a daring expression of freedom, an extension of the soaring joie de vivre that perpetuates Love! Valour! Compassion!, which more than anything is a celebration of shared lives every bit as unfair, rewarding, mundane, carefree, overwhelming, and precious as our own.


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