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'Love! Valour! Compassion!' Too Much for Translation


When you know going in that Terrence McNally's Tony-winning "Love! Valour! Compassion!" was a hit on the New York stage, one thing becomes stunningly clear: Stage dialogue has a hard time making the trip to a big screen. It's paradoxical, really. In the theater, there's an implicit understanding that distances, both spatial and emotional, must be breached; in the cinema, the intimacy is so immediate that passions must be tempered.

And there's nothing temperate about "Love! Valour! Compassion!," which McNally, who adapted the script, intended as Anton Chekhov cross-pollinated with Oscar Wilde but which arrives at something closer to "The Boys in the Band" meets "The Big Chill."

That this is the first film for director Joe Mantello, who was nominated for a Tony for directing the stage version, may be compounding the problem. But frankly, if someone wanted to do a parody of a gay film like this, it's hard to imagine the sloganeering being much different.

What we have are eight gay "types" rather than full-blooded characters--billboards of earnestness who over several summer weekends meet, grieve, rail and bond at the country home of dancer-choreographer Gregory Mitchell (Stephen Bogardus). Among his guests are longtime lovers Perry and Arthur (Stephen Spinella and John Benjamin Hickey), the icily British pianist John Jeckyll (John Glover), Gregory's lover Bobby (Justin Kirk), who's blind, and John's much younger inamorata, Ramon (Randy Becker), who's hot.

Oh yes, and let's not forget the late-arriving, Broadway-musical quoting Buzz Hauser, played by "Seinfeld's" newly enriched Jason Alexander, who's as brightly over the top as need be (and is the only cast member who was not in the stage play).

McNally is expert at establishing the labyrinth of interrelationships among the men--who loves, loved, loathes and would like to sleep with whom--as well as the men's often impenetrable facades, which may have been erected out of fear but are left standing out of habit. Ramon, lusted after by most of the group, in turns desires Bobby (the sex object responding to the blind man is a bit much, but OK). Bobby's betrayal of Gregory exacerbates the latter's fear of age; Ramon's roaming about makes John more bitter than he already was.

The film works best as a parable of youth and age, and how both are distorted by AIDS. When John's HIV-positive twin brother James (also played by Glover, who's excellent) arrives and begins dying--just as Buzz falls in love with him--it throws much of what is happening in the men's lives into perspective. AIDS, McNally is telling us, is a disease like any other, in the sense that it only hastens the inevitable. The concerns of the stricken--how to best make use of one's time on Earth, how to love as well as one can--aren't exactly limited to the plague-stricken. They're timeless, universal priorities that aren't any different for gays than straights, and that of course is the point. But preaching to the converted is a waste of time, as is saccharine-laced sincerity.

* MPAA rating: R for graphic nudity, some sexuality and strong language. Times guidelines: adult themes best suited for mature audiences.


'Love! Valour! Compassion!'

Jason Alexander: Buzz Hauser

Randy Becker: Ramon Fornos

Stephen Bogardus: Gregory Mitchell

John Glover: John & James Jeckyll

John Benjamin Hickey: Arthur Pape

Justin Kirk: Bobby Brahms

Stephen Spinella: Perry Sellars

A Krost/Chapin production, released by Fine Line Features. Director Joe Mantello. Producers Doug Chapin, Barry Krost. Screenplay by Terrence McNally, based on his play. Cinematographer Alik Sakharov. Editor Colleen Sharp. Costumes Jeff Goldstein. Music Harold Wheeler. Production design Francois Seguin. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

* At selected theaters.

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