Long-term love in ‘Holding the Man’

The agony and the ecstasy of love take center stage in the passionate new play “Holding the Man,” which runs through Nov. 4 at The New Conservatory Theatre Center. But what about real commitment?

It’s there, too. In the end, it’s clearly the star of the show.

The impressive new work by award-winning Australian playwright Tommy Murphy recently had its U.S. premiere in San Francisco. Directed by Matthew Graham Smith, it chronicles the 15-year relationship of two men (Ben Randle and Bradly Mena).

Murphy, who flew in from Sydney for preview performances several weeks ago, says the work definitely gives people something to ponder.

“The play probably asks us why we hurt the ones we love,” he says. “I think that’s the question that drives it. Hopefully it sheds some light on the nature of love and relationships.”

It does. “Holding the Man” is a moving, often heart-tugging emotional odyssey. What sets it apart from other plays tackling similar material may be how well it balances its dramatic arcs with levity. Truthful and raw, the work boldly showcases the dynamics of “relationship” — the good and all of the messy emotional undercurrents in between.

“It embraces theater,” Murphy says. “When you’re adapting a story from a book to a play, you have to do that; you have to ignite the new form. The lucky guide here is that we are telling the life story of a theater maker so it makes sense that we have fun with theatricality.”

That theater maker is Timothy Conigrave, whose autobiographical book, “Holding the Man,” first hit Australian bookshelves in 1995 shortly after his AIDS-related death. Conigrave’s spirit certainly lived on. The book nabbed a United Nations Human Rights Award for Non Fiction the same year it was released. By 2003, it was heralded as one of the country’s 100 favorite books. The U.S. version was released in August. Murphy penned the afterword.

In adapting the book to the stage, Murphy wanted to effectively illuminate the touching moments experienced between the two main characters as they come to terms with HIV in their lives. The result, he says, seems to make audiences want to “hug their lover tighter.”“I also hope they laugh and change,” he adds.

But Murphy, who’s 28, notes that he didn’t set out to create a “gay” play per se.

“I think gay theater has been very successful,” he says. “For the most part, and I am speaking from an Australian perspective here — the battle is won. What that means for a gay guy of my age is that there isn’t much ‘drama’ left in the gay experience in itself. This is good; stories about gay characters and gay history don’t have to have the sole agenda to inform or create identity. ‘Holding the Man’ is a love story and that’s universal.”

“Holding the Man” recently won an Australian Literary Award for Best Play in 2007.

Overall, Murphy credits the audiences for fueling the play’s popularity.

“We have to reward our audience for turning off their DVD projector with surround sound,” he says. “We have to reward them for choosing to congregate in a theater. The way to do that is to turn the theater on.”

Holding the Man

Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; closes Nov. 4

Tickets: $22 to $34

Contact: (415) 861-8972 or www.nctcsf.org.

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