By ALIA STEARNS
The small black box theater that houses defunkt theatre welcomes audiences to its production of The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell without fanfare. The simple staging points accurately to a sitting room that does double duty in both 1958 and 2008. It is in no way an impressive backdrop, alive with special flourishes: Instead, it highlights how common the experiences of the three main characters are, and that is what makes the tears flow.
In the opening scene, audiences are introduced to Phillip (Morgan Lee), an estate agent, and his actress-turned-illustrator wife Sylvia (Paige McKinney), who has invited Oliver (Matthew Kern), the author with whom she is working, to meet her husband. As she finishes getting ready, the two men are left to work through tense chitchat, an undercurrent of attraction merely hinted at until, as they exit the flat for dinner, Sylvia comments that she “felt something.” Their storyline follows the relationship between the two men and Sylvia’s understanding of her husband’s desires.
In a future that alternates with the 1950s narrative are another Phillip, Oliver, and Sylvia. Though they are played by the same actors, the understanding is that they are completely different people, if weighted with the psychic baggage of the ones that came before them. This Oliver is still a writer, a journalist, but rather than the romantic of the 1950s, he is seemingly addicted to having sex with strangers. Phillip, his recent ex, is a photographer. Sylvia, an actress, is his best friend. Whereas the 1950s are predominantly about Phillip and his self-hatred, the 2000s are all about Oliver and his self-hatred.
In some ways, it is clear that this is Kaye Campbell’s first play. There are moments that feel less representative of what the character would say and more a manifestation of a writer’s desire to etch a theme in stone. For instance, in the 1958 storyline, travel serves as a metaphor for Phillip’s desire for the opposite sex. Meanwhile, future Phillip is a proud homosexual world traveler. That, in and of itself, would be sufficient, but past Oliver literally has a monologue spelling the parallel out, and though it is beautifully performed, it feels overbearing.
Beautiful performances are in large supply. McKinney does the best job, crafting two completely different Sylvias. Her relationships with the other characters feel more genuine than anything else in The Pride. She also gets the best transition between time periods. In the 1950s, she is understanding and lonely, but a jump to the future treats the audience to a woman with boundaries and the hope of a stable relationship with a long-term future. She will get everything her past self wanted and deserved.
Lee, meanwhile, has perhaps the hardest job, as he alternately plays a stiff-backed, emotionally reserved British man of the 1950s and an underwritten photographer, but he handles both admirably. In his final scene as past Phillip, he seeks aversion treatment, and his hints that the attraction to Oliver went beyond the physical are heart-wrenching. Plus, the horror of this scene is more intense than anything manifested in the future.
And Kern makes the most of quiet moments. In the opening scene, as 1950s Oliver, he describes an experience of great personal import in Delphi. A voice that whispered “there will be an understanding of certain things . . . that would 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.” As he speaks, Kern takes a heavy-handed act on the author’s part and turns it into a subtle act of inadvertent seduction. From that start he is off and running, giving both Olivers a vibrancy that exceeds the words he has been given to speak.
Some of the best scenes are given to Robert Durante, who plays the doctor who oversees Phillip’s aversion therapy, a sex worker hired by future Oliver to dress in a Nazi uniform and humiliate him, and a lad magazine editor. In this final turn, he gives a monologue about an uncle who died from AIDS. Prior to this moment he is loud and brash, encouraging 2000s Oliver to write the gay sex article that will make straight men jealous. But, as he describes his favorite uncle, there is an unexpected softness, revealing a side of him it is implied he didn’t even know existed.
Unfortunately, some of the staging makes it a bit difficult to experience every scene easily. Director Sarah Armitage has much of the action take place on the sparse set, but in the second act considerably more takes place close to the audience. It is quite difficult to remain invested in a scene when you cannot see the actors. It can also be tough to know where to look when your knee is eight inches from a seated character. Front row seating may not work for everyone.
It is truly the performances that make The Pride resonant, as the lines they speak are often less than moving as written. But these actors give life to people in profound pain. They gush loneliness to a degree that makes it pool beyond the very valid concerns of homosexuality and leave it soaking into the fabric of humankind. It is impossible to watch them without reflecting on the basic need to connect.
The Pride continues 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays (no show March 4) through March 17 at defunkt theatre, 4321 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Reservation information here, or are pay-what-you-will at the door.