The Pride feels more like a litany of gay problems than a living drama

The best thing about British playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride, which is receiving its local premiere at Paragon Theatre, is the central conceit. The action plays out in alternating scenes that take the same three people — well, essentially and symbolically the same, since they don't ever age — back and forth through a fifty-year span, from 1958 to 2008. In the process, the play documents changes in gay life and culture over time: the difficulties of being homosexual in both mid-century and contemporary London, the outside threats, the varieties of self-loathing, and the difficulty of arriving at self-acceptance.

In the mid-'50s, buttoned-down Phillip is married to Sylvia, a children's book illustrator; she has invited her friend, Oliver, the writer on her current project, to meet him and share a meal. The two men chat stiffly over a drink; when she enters, Sylvia, also pretty brittle, struggles to break the ice. It turns out the men are attracted to each other, and eventually attraction turns to love, rage and despair. Phillip pays a visit to a doctor who prescribes a brutal and ugly conversion therapy. Still searching for his own truth, Oliver attempts to instill some level of pride in his friend.

Phillip and Oliver begin 2008 as a couple, but Oliver is unable to keep his dick in his pants — or rather, other men's dicks out of his mouth — and a bitter breakup ensues. Although things have changed, with gay-pride groups, gay politics and homosexuality far more accepted than before, history is inescapable: Oliver's promiscuity is surely the flip side of earlier repression; discrimination and condemnation continue; the difficulties of finding love persist. (Though less so in Phillip and Oliver's arty, sophisticated London than in, say, red state, small-town America — not to mention Uganda.) Sylvia is the one character who has prospered over time, having evolved from the sad, hurt, uncomprehending wife of the '50s into a sophisticated woman. She's realized her dream of being an actress (it's no accident, surely, that she's currently playing the cross-dressing Viola of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, one of the strongest, sweetest and most appealing fictive women ever created). Sylvia has a sexy lover who wants to have a child with her, as Phillip never did. And she remains a perceptive and devoted friend to both Phillip and Oliver.

The issues explored in The Pride are still vivid and pressing, but the play often comes across more like a catalogue of problems than a living drama, with the characters mere mouthpieces. Every point that needs scoring gets scored, from AIDS to the stereotype of gays as stylish and fashionable. But the biggest problem is the self-pitying tone. The script periodically strains for poeticism — and sometimes almost attains it — but though there are touching moments, it goes on far too long.

It might have helped if director Taylor Gonda and her actors had chosen to play against rather than emphasize the lachrymose text. If the men were ever charming, high-spirited, funny and — yes — even stylish, you might come to care for them. Jarrad Holbrook does a good job of conveying Phillip's tightly wound pain. As Oliver, Jake Walker is so sodden that I had to fight the impulse to tell him to quit whining because lots of people have it worse. As for the English accents, they were the self-conscious kind that come between actor and audience, and mask rather than reveal personality. Tellingly, the moments when my interest quickened were almost always those when someone got funny or playful. Holbrook's rare smiles were a pleasure, and so was playful 2008 Sylvia, who leavened the proceedings with humor and joy, and proved playwright Campbell capable of a pretty high level of wit. And this was where Barbra Andrews — released from the drab cocoon of '50s wifehood — shone. The scene in which she exhorted Oliver to consider the character of the men he seduced instead of just their physical endowments was a high point.