It started with a kiss

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Theatre: Love! Valour! Compassion!

The Library Theatre, Manchester

In another of Terrence McNally's plays, A Perfect Ganesh, one of the characters is faced with the opportunity to fulfil her childhood's religious dream and kiss the face of an Indian leper. She can't, and gives him 50 rupees instead.

In Love! Valour! Compassion!, here receiving its European premiere in Roger Haines's committed production, Buzz asks to see the Aids lesion on James's body, then stoops to kiss it. Soon afterwards they become lovers.

Like Ganesh, Love! ... is about, well, love, but emphatically not - despite the explicit sexuality and the blizzard of wisecracks which take their cue from the schmaltz of musical romance - lurve.

The play's three acts cover three holiday weekends, spring to fall, enjoyed by a group of long-standing New York gay friends at the upstate summer home of Gregory, a dancer-choreographer (Nicholas Chagrin) and his blind partner Bobby. The other couples are Perry and Arthur, 14 years together, and the cynical English expat, John, and his hot date, Ramon. The single - until the arrival of John's twin brother James - is Buzz, the love child of Judy Garland and Liberace, played by Stewart Permutt, whose extravagant verve successfully transplants the character's Woody Allen-ish brain into Private Doberman.

The shadows in this fleeting Arcadia are Aids, lust, infidelity, and the sulphurous smoulder of disappointment and resentment. All are hurt, and inflict damage via these afflictions. But the qualities celebrated in the play's title contend against them and are recognised within a traditional religious framework. The twins, for instance, given a suitably angular discomfiture by Edmund Kente, are represented as bad and good, unloved and loved. Bobby, helplessly seduced by Ramon (the impressively sculptured Danny Teeson), has a monologue about unconditional love and how that is what defines God, which Bryan Carney manages to keep this side of outright sermonising, but only just.

I'm not sure whether McNally is meaning to show how religious understanding of course embraces contemporary experience, or is striving to cram it into some pocket of "now". His effort is, in either case, a serious attempt to express significant values in a culture which cannot easily find the language for doing so.

Nonetheless - going back to that kiss - there is a mannerist feel to his sensibility, as with a St Thomas palpably fingering Christ's wounded side, that, to me at least, goes over the top into sentimentality. But the style is fascinatingly consistent, including both the hints of Michelangelo in the men's naked poses and the ubiquity of the reference to the other art form characterised by Baroque excess, Buzz's beloved Broadway musical.

The wit and sheer camp pleasurability of much of this is irresistible, though it is repetitious and could do with some of the tautness required of the actors as the play flabs out across its three acts and eight lifetimes. Working in similar territory, Kevin Elyot's My Night With Reg is a model of economy in comparison. Sometimes writing so hard brings diminishing returns.

To 4 April (Box office: 0161-236 7110)

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