Who, other than novelist Andrea Newman and screen adapter Edna O'Brien, says that "3 Into 2 Won't Go"? It goes just fine — albeit, with a little pushing, shoving and shoehorning — in Alexi Kaye Campbell's first play, The Pride, a much-prized (Olivier Award included) drama from London now bowing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.
He, too, triangulates in search of common truths among a trio of erotically aware adults, but he goes the old game one better by twirling twin triangles at the same time. The result is an intricate weave of sexual attitudes circa 1958 and 2008.
This half-century separates one set of characters from another. Both sets are named Philip, Sylvia and Oliver, both sets are played by Hugh Dancy, Ben Whishaw and Andrea Riseborough, and both sets are struggling to sort themselves out sexually.
"We're the same age, but we're not exactly the same characters," says Dancy. "We're kinda different reincarnations. The effect is that the interactions of the characters in one era inform the way you see them in the other era. Anyway, that's the device." The threesome in the '50s-vintage section speak as impeccably as sophisticates in an old Terence Rattigan play, carefully keeping the passion at bay, but a magnetic glance between Philip and Oliver tells us where we are — and that Sylvia is the odd person out here. In the contemporary portion of the play, she's more of an outsider — as Oliver's friend instead of Philip's wife — viewing a gay relationship damaged by Oliver's penchant for casual sex vs. Philip's need for monogamy. In both plays, she's in the driver's seat, negotiating the two men toward honesty and self-respect.
That, basically, is where the title comes from, rather than the fact that the play ends on Gay Pride Day. Campbell "didn't call it Gay Pride — he called it The Pride," Dancy points out. Achieving that pride was difficult in the '50s because of societal repression; now it's self-repression because of the pressures of freewheeling times.
Dancy likes the fact that both his Philips are opposite sides of the same coin. The first Philip, he says, "is not a man who's aware of himself but doesn't want to admit it to the world. What I recognized first about Alexi's play was that he has written a character who truly is in denial. I think denial is often written in a meager manner, whereby the character basically does know who he is and the pretense is paper-thin so his denial is made to look basically transparent. We all know where we stand here. What I like about the way Alexi approached it is that Philip truly, truly does not recognize it about himself — or does not care to believe it to such an extent that it's pushed fully out of sight. I think, in the various scenes you observe in the '58 version of Philip, there is in some way an investigation of what it is to deny something — like yourself to yourself. That's interesting to any actor."
In a sense, Dancy has been down this road before — for the film "Evening," in which he was another tragically tortured '50s soul torn between his now-wife, Claire Danes, and Patrick Wilson. "I didn't think homosexuality was the key to that character, and I still don't," says Dancy. "I think he's somebody who is undergoing an identity crisis, and that is in part to do with his sexuality, but it's more to do with his relationship with the people closest to him. If I were to project into the future for him — which I never do because it's not fruitful — I don't think it's a certainty he'd be gay. I think what he's not facing up to in his life is more about his upbringing."
Of the trio, Dancy is the only one who has acted on a New York stage before (he led the Broadway company of Journey's End to a Tony for Best Revival in 2007).
His co-stars have made their marks here only in movies: Riseborough in "Happy-Go-Lucky" and Whishaw as John Keats ("Bright Star") and Keith Richards ("Stoned").
"Ben was here for the reading," says Dancy, "and part of my sense of the play was forged by hearing him read the part of Oliver. I read the play initially because I was asked to do a reading of it by [director] Joe Mantello for MCC [Theater]. You read something a little more casually when you're doing that, but I found myself at home reading the thing from start to finish, completely absorbed by it. Within ten minutes, I was giving a one-man performance in my empty apartment. I was immediately aware that the writing was of an unusually high caliber, so I went into the reading with more thought and more work than I might usually, just for my own enjoyment. The day after the reading, it became clear we were going to go on the production path."
And, now, here he is — Hugh Dancy, just bursting with pride.