If a two-character opposite-sex love story with no specific gay content seems a curious choice for an LGBT theater, then Theatre Out’s revival of Alan Bowne’s Beirut proves even more problematic for its dull, dated look at the AIDS crisis as seen through a heterosexual lens.
Director Tito Ortiz and a committed cast do their best to hold an audience’s interest throughout Beirut’s mercifully short one-hour running time, but their best efforts can’t rescue a play that might once have been of vital importance but fails to address the ongoing spread of HIV among today’s younger gay male population in a way likely to interest those still in dire need of education.
Beirut posits a “near-future” world (that’s near-future as seen through a 1980s lens, hence mentions of VHS porn and not a cell phone in sight) in which an AIDS-like disease has reached epidemic proportions amongst the general population, thereby prompting the American government to take draconian measures to combat its spread.
One victim of the country’s harsh new laws is our (anti)hero Torch (Andrew Villarreal), currently being kept under a sort of house arrest/solitary confinement in a tiny room in “a quarantined part of New York dubbed Beirut.” Not only has the letter P (for “positive”) been tattooed onto his left butt cheek but Torch finds himself subjected to frequent humiliating nude examinations to check for lumps or lesions, the appearance of which would make even his current government-imposed isolation seem a walk in the park.
Theatre Out’s Beirut modifies Bowne’s published script by starting right off with the production’s promised full-frontal nudity (within touching distance of front-row seats), Torch being ordered by an unseen police officer to drop his boxer shorts for a deliberately drawn-out dick-and-ass check.
A painfully long sequence then follows, one which has Torch examining himself for sores or growths, his body still exposed save for his boxers, then peeing into a container (is it live or is it sound design?), and finally going on to organize his meager collection of magazine clippings, it being a “future” without any technology other than a clock radio that plays ‘80s tunes. (This may be an alternate universe, but at least “We Are The World” has crossed over, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, et al intact.)
Torch’s solitude is at last interrupted by the arrival of onetime girlfriend Blue (Jade Paris), clad shoulders-to-ankles in a government-ordered sack dress which she will soon pull off in her 50-minute campaign to get Torch to throw caution to the wind and fuck her, fatal disease be damned.
Anyone with a knowledge of the first ten years of the AIDS epidemic (or who has watched Ryan Murphy’s recent TV adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart) can see why Beirut was an important piece of theater when it debuted in 1987. It had, after all, taken till two years earlier for President Ronald Reagan to even say the word AIDS in public.
Beirut would appear to have been playwright Bowne’s attempt to reach a heterosexual audience by creating a world in which AIDS was a straight plague, a not unwise approach given the times, 1980s heteros being more likely to see themselves reflected in Torch and Blue than in The Normal Heart’s Ned and Felix. Perhaps, too, gay audiences could take satisfaction in imagining a world in which they were not the only ones victimized by a plague. (Yes, Haitians and hemophiliacs were dying of AIDS, but numbers made it clear that in the ‘80s at least, AIDS was indeed a gay plague.)
Bowne (who died of AIDS only two years after Beirut premiered) might also have been sounding an alarm against those who were, as How To Survive A Plague director David France puts it, making “serious proposals for quarantine, for quarantining all gay people before there was a test that might have separated out those that were positive from negative; serious proposals to tattoo people with HIV so that the world could see their infection branded on their shoulders. And not much money going into scientific research.”
If Beirut comes across dated and irrelevant, it’s certainly not because of its age. The past few years have brought powerful L.A. revivals of Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William M. Hoffman’s As Is (both of them first staged in 1985), plays which remain as devastating and inspiring as they were three decades ago in addition to providing younger gay audiences with a much-needed history lesson.
Beirut suffers from tedious, redundant, pedantic writing sprinkled with made-up words. (“You’re a negative and I’m a positive.” “This shit is in all the excretals of the body.” “Now you got your parvo- and you got your retro-viruses, and the retros invert your T-cell ratio.” “This bug I’m carryin’. Is the thing. That lesionates you.” “No exchange of virulous fluids!”) And this goes on and on and on, and all of it spoken in a playwright-imposed Brooklynese dialect so thick you’d need a Ginsu knife to cut it with.
It doesn’t help either that neither of Beirut’s protagonists are people you’d particularly want to spend time with even under the best of circumstances, let alone under these. Actors with the star quality of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams might make us care for Torch and Blue as they did for Dean and Cindy in Blue Valentine. And maybe Beirut would work as part of a contemporary LGBT theater season if Torch and Blue were a same-sex couple … but that wouldn’t be Bowne’s play.
Producer Joey Baital and director Ortiz deserve top marks for Beirut’s striking, claustrophobic set, as does producer David C. Carnevale for his suitably stark lighting design and Ortiz for his equally dramatic sound design, and cast members Villarreal and Paris deserve at the very least A for effort and daring. Nick McGee is stage manager.
Beirut might be of historical fascination to Queer Studies majors with a minor in Theater Arts. Others will likely find it of considerably less interest.
Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.
September 7, 2014