How much of the human experience is determined by the era you are born into? In The Pride, a play by Alexi Kaye Campbell currently in its Los Angeles premiere at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, one storyline takes place in 1958 and another in 2008. Both follow a core trio of characters, two gay men and one woman, and explore two very different experiences with homosexuality and relationships. The same actors play different characters who have the same names, amongst other similarities, in both storylines, resulting in a fascinating juxtaposition between two stories in which the world is very different, but human nature has ultimately changed very little.
In 1958, we meet married couple Philip (Neil Bledsoe), a businessman, and Sylvia (Jessica Collins), an artist and former actress. Sylvia has invited her colleague and friend, Oliver (Augustus Prew), a writer, to join them for dinner. Oliver meets Philip for the first time, and it is immediately apparent there is an attraction between them. The fallout from this meeting goes on to have a tremendous impact on all three of their lives as Philip struggles with feelings he desperately wants to bury.
In 2008, a different Oliver and Philip have just broken up as a result of Oliver’s serial cheating, which has become an addiction. He attempts to work through his issues by hiring cosplaying prostitutes from the internet to enable his dark fantasies and relies too much on his best friend, Sylvia, who is struggling to balance her own new relationship with Oliver’s overbearing codependence.
This production is directed by Michael Arden (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis), and as I have come to expect from his work, the choices in the staging were bold and powerful. Arden also designed the sleek, modern set, which consists of a square of no more than 20 feet by 20 feet with a glass floor and seats for the audience surrounding all four sides. All of the furniture is also see-through, making the entire tableau a startlingly blank slate. Music from both 1958 and 2008 fills the theater prior to the performance and during transitions, and despite everything taking place on the same set, the shifting storylines were never confusing due to sharp and smart distinctions in the characters’ dialects, wardrobe, and props.
The way the two parallel storylines relate to each other is difficult to describe, but an intentional kinship between the two sets of characters is established. There are moments, always signified by marked changes in lighting (Travis Hagenbuch) where the two timelines almost seem to intersect in the time-space continuum, as if the characters are remembering something that happened to them in another life. The tone is just a tad eerie, a bit mystical, like the characters of 1958 are haunting those in 2008 and vice versa. Early on, 1958 Oliver describes a spiritual epiphany he had on a trip abroad when he heard a voice reassuring him that one day, life will be different and easier for those dealing with what he is dealing with himself. It is as if the two sets of characters exist on either side of an incredibly flimsy threshold, simultaneously inches and eons away from reaching one other, and if they manage to, it would somehow supply a puzzle piece they’ve always been missing.
The cast of four (additional characters are played by Matthew Wilkas) is fantastic, shifting seamlessly between their two alter egos. Prew in particular is wonderful—Oliver has the most emotional and the most comedic scenes to play and he handles both masterfully. In many ways, his character is the heart and soul of both storylines, and he is supported beautifully by Collins and Bledsoe, who are giving incredibly fine performances of their own.
The time periods have a tremendous affect on the story and the characters’ journeys. In 1958, being gay was still considered taboo by many, and Philip’s story is a tragic yet common one—as is Sylvia’s. She has suspected the truth about her husband for a long time and is essentially willing to turn a blind eye so that he might find happiness outside their marriage. At one point, Oliver even suggests maybe this is what she subconsciously intended by introducing him to her husband in the first place. In 2008, the characters still struggle with infidelity, attachment, and forgiveness, but the atmosphere is much more accepting—this Oliver and his friends can wear t-shirts that say “MO HOMO” and attend Pride festivals, which surely would have seemed like a pipe dream fifty years prior. The comparison is poignant and powerful, as is everything about this very smart play. Arden’s modern, creative direction brings out its strongest notes, making this an important piece of theater to celebrate Pride month.
The Pride runs at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through July 9th. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased here.