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About Face stages The Pride—just in time for Pride

Alexi Kaye Campbell's play juxtaposes gay couples in London 50 years apart.

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Alexi Kaye Campbell's drama The Pride begins and ends with parallel images of two men onstage together. Oliver and Philip are handsome Londoners in their late 20s or early 30s, palpably attracted to each other but unable to consummate the feeling. But the Oliver and Philip in the first scene aren't the Oliver and Philip in the last scene; though they share names, the two pairs are separated by 50 years. The action jumps back and forth between 1958 and 2008 to juxtapose two gay relationships in crisis.

The play, which debuted in 2008 at London's prestigious, progressive Royal Court Theatre, was the first from Kaye Campbell, the life partner of former Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke. The Pride won Britain's John Whiting Award, putting its author in the company of Tom Stoppard and Wole Soyinka, among others; it came to the U.S. in 2010, in an off-Broadway production that starred Ben Whishaw as Oliver. Now it's receiving its Chicago premiere in a beautifully acted production by About Face Theatre.

The Oliver of 1958 is an author of children's books. His Philip is the husband of Oliver's illustrator, sensitive and fragile Sylvia, who has brought the two men together—perhaps unconsciously, in order to force her husband out of the closet in a time when homosexuality was forbidden. During their first meeting, Oliver speaks of having visited Delphi, the home of the ancient Greek oracle, where he believes he heard a mysterious voice prophesying a better time of wiser and happier people. An affair between Oliver and Philip is inevitable; whether it will succeed is less certain.

The 2008 Oliver, a journalist, lives in a time when "gay is cool," but the easy availability of hook-ups in parks and pubs and on the Internet presents its own set of problems. He too hears a voice, but his is the one we all know and fear—the one that tells us, "You're no good." Though he's in love with Philip, Oliver also has a compulsive need for anonymous sex, the sleazier the better. (When we first meet him he's having rough sex with a hunky, leather-clad Nazi—really just a nice young actor, making ends meet as a call boy.) Philip can't handle Oliver's promiscuousness and need for degradation. As with the Oliver and Philip of 50 years earlier, these men's love for each other can't overcome the obstacle of one partner's self-doubt.

The play's title refers to London's annual gay pride festival, an event that the Oliver and Philip of 1958 never could have imagined. It's there that the 2008 pair—drawn together by an actress friend, again named Sylvia—may or may not find a way to bridge the gulf between sex and love, which can be as daunting in today's permissive environment as it was in the repressive past.

The Pride's nonlinear narrative structure, which recalls certain works by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, is a shrewd strategy on Kaye Campbell's part. Individually each of these truthful but generic stories might be too familiar to generate much involvement on the part of viewers. But intercutting them offers thought-provoking insight into the issues the play addresses: the complex interplay between sexual desire, emotional need, identity, fear of loneliness, and fear of commitment, as well as changing social attitudes about homosexuality over half a century—including among gay people.

Bonnie Metzgar's nuanced staging allows four first-rate actors—Patrick Andrews as Oliver, John Francisco as Philip, Jessie Fisher as Sylvia, and Benjamin Sprunger in a series of small but clearly delineated supporting roles—to display their wide psychological and stylistic ranges. The performers' detailed vocal inflections and precise body language illuminate the differences in behavior between people from the 1950s and people today. Their portrayals, along with Kaye Campbell's well-crafted dialogue—chatty and politely mannered in a Terence Rattigan vein in the 1958 scenes, vulgar and freewheeling in a Terrence McNally mode in the 2008 sequences—invite the audience to consider how much of what we feel is related to the ways in which we move and speak.

With elegant design by William Boles (set), Becca Jeffords (lights), and Stephen Ptacek (sound), The Pride simmers with a keen sense of emotional atmosphere. Every moment is filled with elusive, uncertain resonances: a quiet, anxiously tentative conversation between estranged lovers; a 1950s psychiatrist's coolly clinical explanation of aversion therapy (in which a "deviant" patient is injected with nausea-inducing drugs while viewing gay porn); even a brutal anal rape that explodes out of a twisted mix of lust, rage, self-loathing, and aching loneliness. Part romance, part history lesson, and part rumination on how identity is affected by changing social circumstances—with just a hint of Greek pagan mysticism thrown in for good measure—The Pride is a timely if offbeat entry in this month's onslaught of events marking the birth of gay liberation in the Stonewall riots.

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