It's easy to forget, in our enlightened and accepting times, that until just 40 years ago, homosexuality was treated as a sexual disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the guidebook for mental health professionals. Back in 1974, the decision to remove it from the DSM was so controversial that some 40 percent of the American Psychological Association's membership voted to have it reinstated into the manual's fourth edition.
Half of Alexi Kaye Campbell's award-winning, London-set play The Pride, running now at Island City Stage, is set during this dark, prohibited time in gay history. The other half follows similar characters 50 years later, where openness doesn't necessarily translate into healthier relationships. Whether it takes place in 1958 or 2008, Oliver (Michael McKeever) and Philip (Bruce Linser) fumble and fume toward breakthroughs, breakdowns, and breakups. The play seems to be saying that in those intervening years, society may have changed, but people remain the same.
In the 1958 segments, Oliver is a worldly children's book author who is introduced to Philip by way of Philip's wife, Sylvia (Faiza Cherie), who is Oliver's illustrator. They've met before, perhaps in a shadowy park somewhere, though Philip will do everything in his power to repress his true desires and maintain what is increasingly becoming a sham marriage.
Fifty years on, Oliver remains as promiscuous then as his namesake was in '58; he is introduced in a funny and uncomfortable scene in which he accepts mock punishment from a "Nazi" (Sean Dorazio) he hired from a fetish website. This generation's Philip is now openly gay and involved with Oliver, but he can't accept his partner's "meaningless" sexual dalliances.
The Pride rotates its scenes between these two periods, with Michael McClain's clever and economic living-room scenic design distinguishing the two by switching out a typewriter with a laptop and vice versa. It's a lengthy play — too long, if you ask me — at two and a half hours with intermission. And, while certainly well-meaning, it is also verbose, stuffed to the brim with thickets of unnecessary dialogue. It doesn't help that Andy Rogow's direction too often teeters toward soap opera artifice, with characters declaring their thoughts while staring archly into the distance rather than at each other.
The acting is solid and impassioned across the board, with McKeever and Cherie its most moving and naturalistic performers; their shared moment on a park bench is the show's highlight. Linser has a tougher go, saddled with playing a character who is, in the 1958 scenes, repressed and stiff. His emotions go from buried to volcanic, with little middle ground, and in the 2008 segments, he lacks enough stage time to accrue dimension. Dorazio is gifted with the show's most fun parts, alternately bringing vivacious color and stone-cold sterility to roles as varied as the faux-Nazi sadist, a loquacious magazine editor, and a callous doctor specializing in "reparative therapy" for gays.
There's enough prestige in this production to compensate for what sometimes feels like a long-winded after-school special that artfully tells us what we already know. Rogow's most masterly touch is his decision to bleed the chronologically disparate scenes together: He frequently grafts characters from the beginning of the next scene onto the end of the previous one, creating thematic fluidity and suggesting that, half a century removed, these perennially struggling lovers still haunt the spaces, and indeed the psyches, of their counterparts.