Love is risk. That tagline is the premise of Kerry Vaughn Miller’s new production of Alan Bowne’s 1987 play Beirut.
The play is set in New York’s Lower East Side in a not-too-distant future. A plague of biblical proportions has ravaged the world, and American policymakers have gone predictably dystopian, instituting martial law and quarantines for all those carrying “the bug.” Torch (Esteban Benito), a former playboy club goer who is infected, is living in a quarantine shanty town on the Lower East Side that has been renamed “Beirut.” His one time lover Blue (Lynn Sher) is disease free, and yet, risking summary execution by the authorities, she sneaks into the quarantine to be with Torch, who she says is the love of her life. For the next tense hour they argue over whether she should go or stay and choose life (as it were) or death with Torch.
Ms Miller (director) has given us the play as-is: Torch and Blue still talk about VCRs and “pornos”; and Torch’s description of “the bug” has all the breathless apocalypticism of the initial wave of hysteria that accompanied the official recognition of AIDS in 1983. That isn’t to say that the AIDS crisis in the 80s wasn’t monumentally significant and worth revisiting — it’s impact on Alan Bowne’s life produced the most tragic kind of monument — but it is rather to say that the play reads more like an historical artifact than an historically transcendent observation. In 2012 Blue doesn’t seem like a tragic Juliette figure to Torch’s Romeo as much as a “bug chaser,” a nihilistic, post-punk succubus who lives on death.
The show was a success, however, because Esteban Benito and Lynn Sher have so much chemistry. Both of them are fit, energetic actors. But the sexual tension between them is palpable. The tangy perfume of it hangs in the air of the close, dark, Under St, Mark’s black box theater like the smell in the bathroom of an underground gay club during Reagan’s administration. (Not that I would know what that’s like, but I thought it was a good simile.) If Ms. Miller’s mission was to give two talented actors a space to show off their chops, she did a great job.