There's a point in the second act of Berkeley Rep's lovingly rendered production of Love! Valour! Compassion! -- Terrence McNally's glimpse into the private world of gay relationships, directed by Warner Shook -- where the artistry of the playwright and the artifice of the play come into high relief. It's during the second of three house-party weekends, after we've had a chance to meet and get to know the guests. In the pajama party way of such gatherings, two of the friends hide in a bedroom closet to spy on a third, who has retired with his sexy boy-toy for some recreational bondage. The eavesdroppers are Buzz (Patrick Kerr), a flamboyant musical-comedy queen who has AIDS, and Perry (Kevin Donovan), an elitist lawyer who mistrusts everyone, including Arthur (James Carpenter), his partner of 14 years.
As they crouch and listen, supposedly all in good fun, they hear their friend's most tightly held secrets, "friend" here being a relative term. The man in question is John (Laurence Ballard), a bitter, self-absorbed cynic whom no one likes and who has only been included because Gregory (Jeffrey Hayenga), the host, feels sorry for him.
John's bondage companion is Ramon (Bruno Irizarry), a gorgeous Puerto Rican dancer. What happens in this scene is emblematic: As the misanthropic John spills his guts to a partner who remains literally and figuratively untouched, the uninvited listeners, who are stand-ins for the audience, react. We are permitted our voyeuristic nervous giggles, and an impossibly private moment is rendered public by the reminder (via the eavesdroppers) that all this is for display anyway. The pretense that we will see the "Never before revealed!" world of gay men has been exposed.
Yet, thanks to the breezily witty narration, all has been so entertaining -- skinny-dipping and tutus included -- we don't object. We hardly even notice. McNally, who has said that this play springs from a desire to show what gay men are like when by themselves, has charmed us into thinking we are seeing exactly that.
An extraordinary ensemble under Shook's able direction completes the illusion. There isn't a weak performance to be seen among the seven actors. Carpenter and Donovan play the obligatory long-term couple as discretely individualized "bookends," and Kerr is hilarious as the wisecracking diva of Broadway. Hayenga as Gregory the host and Irizarry as Ramon shine as dancers at opposite ends of distinguished careers. They bring the poetry of movement to McNally's words, and the real unspoken tenderness the play is struggling to express.
Themes of love and loss abound, and the long evening (three hours) is operatic in scope and ambition. But in the end all is still display. It's rather like being taken on a whirlwind tour of a stately mansion: Just as you begin to notice the worn spots in the carpets or the chips in the china, you're hustled into the next room. Before you know it, you're back outside with the host's warm assurance that you're welcome back anytime. As you turn to ask the inevitable questions, you find the door shut politely but firmly in your face. You're not sorry you came, but you're not really sure what has happened. You're left instead with the painful truth that the pretense of intimacy merely emphasizes the impossibility of achieving it.