Beirut is an AIDS play, written by New York playwright Alan Bowne, who died of the disease in 1989. This was the same time and place Tony Kushner wrote his brilliant, apocalyptic Angels in America. For gay men, in New York and elsewhere, it seemed like the end of the world. For Bowne it really was.
But things have changed. The political paranoia around the early years of the AIDS epidemic has calmed down. Long-term survival rates for HIV-positive people are significant. Besides, Alan Bowne was never Tony Kushner. And Vancouver is not New York.
All of this is to say that Beirut feels like a psycho-historical document of a very particular time and place. Even apart from being dated it’s not a good play. And in their attempt to replicate the script’s harsh naturalism and very specific New Yorkese, the young Vancouver performers of PikeFly Theatre seem engaged in more of an acting exercise than a fleshed-out dramatic evening.
There is plenty of flesh. Torch (Adam Lolacher) spends the entire play in his underwear, quarantined in his ruined cell-like room in a Manhattan neighbourhood for the infected, nicknamed Beirut. Although violations of the quarantine are punishable by death, Torch’s disease-free girlfriend Blue (Mylène Dinh-Robic) makes her way inside and is soon in her underwear, too.
She wants to have sex. He says no, you’ll catch the plague. She says I don’t care. The play consists of an hour’s worth of variations on this exchange, peppered with obscenities and some gritty physical confrontations. The only respite is a visit from a sadistic, perverted guard from the Lesion Patrol (Russ Ball). Talk about No Fun City.
“I can live without risk and feel dead,” says Blue. “Or I can risk death and feel alive.” Nowadays, unprotected sex with the infected seems less romantic and rebellious than just stupid and self-destructive.
These are talented kids. I’ve seen Lolacher do good work on stage, and Dinh-Robic held her own with Nick Campbell on DaVinci’s. Both give physically committed performances here, throwing each other around hard enough to really hurt. But it all feels technical. Neither the actors nor first-time director Michael Tayles finds the subtleties in their relationship that might make it seem real. What’s especially missing is any tenderness. Bowne’s one-note writing doesn’t help.
The actors’ attempts to replicate deep and broad Noo Yawk accents call further attention to the play’s artifice. And the vocal levels are so low that even in the tiny Studio 16 space, I missed much of Dinh-Robic’s dialogue.
It’s a tough place to live, that Beirut.