Lust Lost

Unblinking Beirut imagines an era when AIDS poisons intimacy.

Let's start with the obvious: It embarrasses me to see a naked guy on stage. Not when he's standing motionless, bathed in golden light and looking like a statue of Apollo, but when he's wandering around a cluttered, filthy-looking room, spooning food out of a can with his fingers or lying back on the bed and masturbating, first with his hand and then into a pillow. Okay, the man is wearing droopy underwear at this point, but it doesn't conceal much. Beirutis a highly -- and unpleasantly -- sexualized play in which a couple struggles to make love and, at the same time, not to make love. So it's a testament to the focus of actors Phil Newsom and Sara Rae Downey, and to their total immersion in their roles, that eventually I stopped squirming and started thinking about what this piece of theater means.

In Alan Browne's play, "Beirut" is the name given to New York's East Village where, in a futuristic dystopia, HIV-positive people are quarantined (the play doesn't use the terms AIDS or HIV, but the references are clear). Outside this area, the world has changed. Sex is forbidden on pain of execution, and hanged bodies are displayed in public places. Women are forced to cover their bodies with sack-like dresses; all the simple joys of living are proscribed. There are guards everywhere, and intrusive body searches are the norm.

Torch, confined in his East Village apartment, is simply waiting to die, although he is at present symptom-free. Into his claustrophobic world sneaks Blue, his onetime girlfriend. She wants to have sex with him. A dance of attraction, longing, rage and rejection follows. She flaunts her body. He responds with blows, curses and mockery. He says his love would kill her; she says it doesn't matter: She feels dead without him anyway. It's clear that Blue finds the proximity of death exciting. For her and Torch, these are the interactions that pass for love.

Unfortunately, neither character is particularly convincing as written. The names alone are a dead giveaway. Torch and Blue seem like a middle-class writer's idea of what working-class people are like, and much of their speech sounds artificial.

Beirut was written in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis. It still resonates in our time, with the attempts of fundamentalists of all stripes to deny human sexuality and sensual pleasure, and the hatred of homosexuals propagated by certain churches in the United States and recently ratified by the droves of voters who turned out to oppose gay marriage. But Beirut's primary power comes from its evocation of the climate of the time in which it was written. Some of us remember the sheer shock of discovering a disease that spread through the act of love itself, the way the connection between love and death, used as metaphor by poets and playwrights for centuries, had changed suddenly from an abstract concept to a hideous reality. Copulate with the wrong person, and you faced nausea, pain, sores and pus, diarrhea and ultimate dementia. Naturally, elements of the Christian right were quick to call AIDS God's judgment on sinners. The lack of effective treatment and the uncertainty about the mechanisms of transmission led to a near-universal fear of bodily fluids (I remember the sadness and terror I felt upon reading the headline "AIDS found in a teardrop"); concern among heterosexuals about touching homosexual friends and relatives, and of having gay people cut your hair, handle your food or perform surgery on you; a storm of excited publicity when Princess Diana, in 1987, sat beside a man dying of AIDS and took his hand.

AIDS decimated entire communities and had a huge effect on the arts in America. An actor friend told me in the late '80s that his once-promising career had come to a stop because all the directors and playwrights he worked with over the years had died. "Hollywood's toast," Blue says in the play. "They ain't got no stars left."

In this context, Beirut's relentless focus on sex, sickness and the body (at one point Torch gives a disquisition on how the virus mutates, while Blue massages his balls) makes sense. And perhaps at this post-election moment, the play, despite its dated references, aptly expresses the grief and fear of the gay community.

Paper Cat productions is a new theater company operating in a comfortable, refurbished space on Tennyson Street in the Berkeley Park area -- a neighborhood bustling with interesting shops and emerging galleries -- and it bears watching. (Other theater producers, please take note: Paper Cat serves good coffee.) Under the direction of Jake Mechling, Phil Newsom and Sara Rae Downey -- who has an urchin charm -- give gutsy, committed performances. There's a bit too much yelling, and it doesn't help that the actors are sometimes competing with a loud heater and that the acoustics in general are too hard and bright. But Newsom and Downey also give full weight to quieter moments and to the silences between their characters. Ultimately, I don't think even their best efforts entirely save the play, but Beirut is a thought-provoking and honorable production.

 
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