What a difference a half-century can make.

The tribulations of gay men _ carnal and otherwise _ are examined with considerable feeling in ``The Pride,'' Alexi Kaye Campbell's cleverly constructed message play that opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre.

The play, an impressive first effort by Campbell, stands on more than a soapbox. Its MCC Theater production is impeccable, starting with Joe Mantello's nuanced, carefully shaded direction and extending to the play's astonishing actors who portray two sets of characters separated by five decades.

The play fluidly travels back and forth between the years, carefully setting up the contrasts between life in the closet of the late 1950s and the liberated world of early 21st-century England. But does freedom bring happiness? The verdict is still out, so to speak.

At first, we are in mid-20th century England where a husband and wife are entertaining the woman's personable new employer, a writer of children's books. It's all very proper _ with a touch of foreboding, suggesting the drawing-room fireworks of Terence Rattigan, the quintessential British dramatist of the period.

What's felt is never spoken, only expertly inferred by Hugh Dancy as an uptight real estate agent, Andrea Riseborough as his emotionally fragile wife and Ben Whishaw as the charming interloper.

Flash forward 50 years and we have Dancy and Whishaw as lovers, whose volatile relationship has fallen apart, and Riseborough as the best friend who patiently listens to the high drama of her good friends.

The drama fares better in the closeted years, primarily because the tension of the closet produces an inconsolable sorrow that is extinguished or at least lessened when gay pride is allowed to flourish in all its rainbow glory.

There is a fierce intelligence to Whishaw's extraordinary double performances _ whether he is portraying the decent, good-guy Oliver of mid-20th century London, or his more raunchy counterpart, also named Oliver, 50 years later. It's not often that actors get to play two very different characters in the same play, but Whishaw, making an impressive New York stage debut, manages to find the flesh _ and blood _ of both men.

Dancy is equally fine, particularly as the buttoned-up Philip of 1958, an anguished individual who even considers aversion therapy to ``cure'' himself from an attraction to men.

And Riseborough is amazing, too, most heartbreakingly as the wife who sees her marriage fall apart. The actress delivers her lines with an equal measure of sadness and anger, capturing the woman's conflicted emotions with devastating accuracy.

And there is some sharply detailed work by the evening's fourth actor, Adam James, who portrays a variety of small roles, most hilariously a for-hire stud who specializes in costume-specific role-playing.

Campbell's message occasionally strains and sometimes you fear its more lofty arguments will take over the play. But the actors are there to give very human faces to the playwright's arguments.

One more thing. Mantello and his cast are not afraid of silences on stage, a tricky bit of business to pull off. But in a play this intense, sometimes words are not enough.

In the end, emancipation comes with a price, a cost that 21st-century gay men seem to acknowledge even as they are aware of how far they have traveled in those five turbulent decades.


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