At the outset of "The Pride" at Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis, a children's-book author named Oliver stops up for drinks with a married couple, Philip and Sylvia. It is London, 1958, and the attractive trio are heading out to an Italian restaurant for dinner.
Oliver (Clarence Wethern) works with Sylvia (Tracey Maloney), an actor-turned-illustrator. Philip (Matt Guidry) sells real estate. He draws Oliver out with questions that have the gently needling aspect of two people much closer than these two acquaintances.
Oliver responds with the abundant enthusiasm of the newly infatuated. Though the attraction between the two men is entirely submerged, Sylvia senses it, as do we. This little parlor game, surely a hallmark of those with gay leanings in the 1950s, arises from understated writing, nuanced and subtle.
Other parts of British writer Alexi Kaye Campbell's play have all the delicacy of a wooden mallet to the side of the head. The very next scene, for instance, jarringly opens with a profanity-laced encounter between two men, one dressed as a Nazi and the other licking his boots. (This, and a fast but graphic sex scene, have led producers to advise that the show is for those 17 and older.)
While the setting remains London, (and the accents British) the time shifts between 1958 and 2008, a structure that invites us to compare gay life then and now. Now is better, but it's no paradise.
"The Pride," directed by Noël Raymond, gets a committed, thought-provoking and at times quite moving production. It's easy to recommend an evening so full of tears and laughter, pathos and insight.
The play also contains frustrations and clumsy tonal shifts. Paul de Cordova is hilarious in several smaller roles, especially that of the profane but sensitive editor of a "lad's" magazine, but his scenes are not always lashed securely to the rest of the show. When Sylvia and Oliver talk on a park bench after intermission, it goes on too long and seems more like speechifying than conversation.
As Oliver in both time periods, Wethern is highly watchable, bringing his character's irrepressible charm, promiscuity and maddening neediness to bear in all his scenes. Poignantly sketched throughout is his complicated friendship with Sylvia, to whom Maloney gives a delicate sensibility that seems partly indebted to a Tennessee Williams heroine.
Of the three main roles, the trickiest is Philip, filled as he is with the tamped-down self-loathing of the entirely unliberated gay man. I wished for more hints of the partial acceptance that allowed him, even as a married man in the 1950s, to act on his strong attraction to Oliver.