The Pride, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s provocative, daringly constructed look at the changes wrought over five decades of Contemporary Gay History, has at long last arrived in L.A., masterfully directed at the Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts by its brilliant Artist-In-Residence Michael Arden.

Moving seamlessly back and forth in time from 1958 to 2008, Campbell’s Olivier Award winner focuses on two men and one woman whose names may be the same in both decades, but whose lives could not be more different.

 In 1958, we meet real estate agent Philip (Neal Bledsoe), his actress-turned-illustrator wife Sylvia (Jessica Collins) and her latest collaborator, children’s novelist Oliver (Augustus Prew), a young man whose decidedly unmacho ways leave Philip feeling every bit as uncomfortable as he once did around a castmate of Sylvia’s whose “manner” he found “offensive.”

 Fifty years later, a 21st-century Philip has just moved out of the love nest he’s been sharing with a philandering, now heartbroken Oliver (who at the very least still has gal pal/confidant Sylvia around for moral support).

A man whose “deviant” tendencies leave him filled with guilt, shame, and disgust. Another who understands the utter normality of same-sex love regardless of how virulently society condemns it. Another whose anonymous-sex addiction proves disastrous to an otherwise committed relationship. Another who sees his sexual orientation as no barrier to monogamy. And Sylvia, who loves them all.

 These two sets of identically named characters living five decades apart turn a half-century of societal change into riveting theater spiced with bits of humor along the way.

Divided into ten scenes, five per era, The Pride asks us to connect the dots, to imagine what has happened between scenes, and to look for links between past and present even as it grips, challenges, and provides much to discuss, both at intermission and post-performance.

 Enough has changed in the nine years since its 2008 London World Premiere to make The Pride’s “contemporary” scenes their own sort of period piece, but even so, with Michael Arden putting his inspired stamp on each and every scene, the play’s Los Angeles Premiere weaves a provocative spell.

Among the director-scenic designer’s multiple strokes of genius is an in-the-round set whose see-through furniture and floor give the production a striking, “people who live in glass houses” setting for lives lived without transparency.

Choreographed scene changes link past and present to compelling effect, and in one particularly memorable sequence, have 1950s Sylvia and Oliver slowly, mesmerizingly transformed into their 2010s selves by “dressers” Philip and “The Man” (more about him later).

Music plays a significant role throughout, and never more so than when Act One’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” a 1958 chart-topper for The Teddy Bears, gets reprised in Act Two as a bluesy 2007 Amy Winehouse cover to stunning effect.

 A terrific Bledsoe creates indelible impressions as the achingly repressed 1958 Philip and his still torn 21st-century counterpart; Collins is magnificent as both the tightly wound 1958 Sylvia and her today’s-woman namesake, and absolutely devastating when the former unleashes unexpected rage; and Matthew Wilkas is a triple treat as The Man, Peter, and The Doctor, each with its own distinctive English accent.

 Most memorably of all, a sensational Prew brings a quirky charm and oceans of love and pain to a pair of Olivers, one of them victimized by a time that denies him the authentic life he knows is his due, the other the beneficiary-victim of five decades of gay lib.

Travis Hagenbuch lights the Lovelace Studio Theatre to dazzling effect, and never more so than when a see-through floor reveals itself to be infinity-deep. Danae Iris McQueen’s period-perfect costumes, Jeffrey Maloney’s ingenious clear-plastic properties, and Joshua D. Reid’s seductive sound design complete an all-around stunning production design.

Chris Soley is associate scenic designer. Deborah Hartwell is costume supervisor. Casting is by Eric Souliere. Nikki Hyde is production stage manager.

 I wrote last fall that “Sondheim revivals don’t get any more brilliant than Michael Arden’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis.” The Pride is every bit as remarkable in its own extraordinary way.

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Lovelace Studio Theatre, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
June 14, 2017
Photos: Kevin Parry


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