'Holding the Man': Theater Review

Holding the Man Theater Still - H 2014
Suzanne Strong

Holding the Man Theater Still - H 2014

Legendary acting coach Larry Moss conjures a conventional but effective gay relationship tale that hits a few too many familiar tropes.

An L.A. adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s "Holding the Man" focuses on themes such as coming out, identity and AIDS.

When it was first published in 1995 Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man, chronicling his lifelong love affair with a childhood boyfriend, won the United Nations Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction and the Australian Society of Authors included it on their list of “100 Favourite Australian Books.” As a play it broke box office records at Australia’s Griffin Theatre Company when it premiered in 2006 and went on to sell out the Sydney Opera House for four seasons before finally arriving in Los Angeles at The Matrix Theatre. The bad news is that’s an awful lot to live up to.

The good news is the Australian Theatre Company rises to the challenge with their inaugural production staged by Larry Moss. But despite its undeniable spirit and charm, Holding the Man feels a bit like a conventional '80s throwback with its well-trodden themes of coming out, identity and AIDS.

Company co-founder Nate Jones plays Conigrave in various stages of life from vivacious schoolboy in the sixties to budding thespian and gay activist in the eighties. Attending an all-boy Jesuit school he meets and falls in love with John Caleo (Adam Yeend), to the chagrin of his best friend, Juliet (Adrienne Smith in just one of her many inspired incarnations).

It’s a kick to watch Tim and John, juiced with the electricity of young love, stumble into each other’s arms in the first half of the play in a way that nimbly counterbalances their relationship in the second half. The honeymoon ends when John’s father, Dick (Cameron Daddo), finds some of their love letters and forbids them from seeing each other. They, of course, continue to see each other right up until the time Tim graduates and heads for the big city and NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts). There, he meets like-minded free thinkers and free-lovers and embarks on numerous sexual escapades.

When they meet again, Tim and John grapple with the notion of an open relationship and an opportunity is presented to dig deep into issues of emotion and responsibility that playwright Tommy Murphy seems content to merely brush up against, likewise later when the question of who infected whom is answered but its implications go unexplored. It’s symptomatic of a larger problem with a play that sometimes confuses navel gazing with introspection.

Tim is gregarious and charming only not as much as he thinks he is. While Holding the Man is billed as a love story, it’s really a love story between Tim and himself. Laudably the material doesn’t shy away from this point but often struggles with his narcissism to make him empathetic.

As Tim, Jones anchors nearly every scene in a role that demands a wide range of emotions and behavior. He revels in the lighter scenes early on but seems to strain against the emotional scenes later. Playing opposite him, Yeend wanly embodies John, a thinly drawn character designed primarily as story prop with limited levels of expression beyond hurt and concern. Both are surrounded by a strong cast in Daddo, Adrienne Smith, Luke O'Sullivan and Roxane Wilson each stepping into multiple roles. Daddo is outstanding as both John’s intolerant father and Tim’s more accepting dad, in addition to eight other minor roles. And Wilson likewise does double duty as the two moms, and stands out in roles as diverse as a doctor and a masturbating boy.

Credit is also due to director Larry Moss, the acting coach behind Oscar-winning and nominated performances by actors like Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets), Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator, The Departed). Watching Holding the Man, his steady hand with the cast is evident throughout. Seamless onstage transitions and clever low-budget workarounds, (such as a car made of cast members), help make for an entertaining, if not always dramatically enthralling, production.