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Play examines gay issues with humor and sensitivity

A cast of seven and a bare stage are all director Javier Bustillos needs to expressively bring Buffalo United Artists' production of Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" to life on stage. It's a funny, tragic, grown-up play, complete with zingers and tears.

Trekking to a friend's country home by a lake for relaxing holiday weekends, a group of eight homosexual men ends up addressing, among other things, relationships, AIDS and mortality in general. The play's three acts represent Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day weekends, 1996.

While the repartee and pacing are excellent, a layer or two of the "drama" could have been trimmed. The characters address the audience directly, describe and enact flashbacks, and are constantly interacting on varying levels. As an ensemble character study, it is stellar.

And Bustillos' casting couldn't be better. McNally provides recognizable characters, then pours on conflict to shake things up.

The host/homeowner is Gregory Mitchell (David Butler). Butler is quietly graceful in his role as a revered choreographer/dancer. Gregory is artistically blocked, physically breaking down and cuckolded by his younger lover, Bobby (Andrew J. Liegl). Liegl adds complexity to his character's contrasting qualities of innocence, outspokenness and infidelity.

Arthur and Perry (Timothy Patrick Finnegan and Chris Kelly) are the long-settled odd couple. They play marvelously together. They dress alike, finish each other's sentences -- and have major differences arising under stress. Perry has a volatile temper, and Arthur is sensitive.

Buzz (the effusive Eric Rawski) is single, HIV-positive, committed to helping others, and a walking encyclopedia of musical theater. He is the most outspoken for not only the "AIDS cause," but the "gay cause." A running joke is Buzz's contention that almost everyone in history was really gay.

The above five men could have had a fine old summer. But it ain't a drama without conflict. Enter cynical and curmudgeonly John Jekyll (Tim Klein), and his date, talented dancer and sexy interloper Ramon (Kurt Guba).

Guba, as Ramon, is the plot's pot stirrer. Leading with his groin, he comes on to all the guys. He is the first to drop his towel -- oops! -- flaunting his younger, better body. He is naked -- both literally and in his ambition. Gregory is a legend to him, and, almost inevitably, Gregory cedes the performance of the dance he finally creates to Ramon.

Klein also plays his own identical twin, James Jekyll, the nice brother who is dying.

The play is thick with portent and signs: it rains a lot; Gregory, so physically expressive, has a speech impediment; Bobby, his lover, is blind and has never seen his lover's work. The reviled John Jekyll says that he wants to "know who people really are," yet does not know himself.

Yes, for both subject matter and presentation, this is a thoroughly adult -- and thoroughly worthwhile -- experience.

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