Loud and Fast Doesn't Always Rule

There's a whole lot of ranting and raving going on these days over at Area Stage on Lincoln Road. Alan Bowne's Beirut, an unnerving nightmare about a not-so-distant future in which HIV-positive people are quarantined in warehouses on the Lower East Side of New York City, plays in repertory with Steven Berkoff's Kvetch, an equally nightmarish fantasy that pits seemingly normal, everyday life against insuperable levels of internal anxiety. Although this production of Beirut is energetic, darkly funny, and provocative at times, Nancy Gomez and Drew Francis Ruf, as a pair of endangered lovers, work a bit too hard at conveying the theme of love in the time of a fatal disease. So busy careening around the stage, pushing, stroking, or yelling at each other, they forget to slow down long enough for the drama's tender or erotic moments to resonate. On the other hand, compared to the bombastic, one-note screech level at which Kvetch is pitched, Beirut seems a paragon of subtlety, a veritable butterfly wing.

Playwright Alan Bowne sets his one-act vision of New York gone mad with the fear of infection in a quarantined compound named for the once majestic Lebanese city destroyed by civil war. To prevent the spread of the virus, HIV-positive persons have been tattooed with the letter P, sequestered, and subjected to lesion patrols, during which guards inspect the prisoners' bodies with flashlights for telltale purple marks. Once lesions erupt, the "positives" are sent away to an even more restricted place, where, eventually, they die.

Life outside the compound is no fiesta, either: Sex detectors monitor people's activity in their homes; scanners perform the same task in restrooms. Dressing seductively is a capital crime; public hangings take place regularly; dead bodies burn in an ongoing funeral pyre in the East Village's Tompkins Square Park. Braving this war zone, Blue, a young HIV-negative woman from Queens, crosses the barricades into Beirut to join her HIV-positive boyfriend, Torch. He thwarts her romantic notions of their setting up house in the trenches, however, by refusing to make love to her because he might infect her. They move toward and away from each other through the rest of the play, wearing only their underwear. In the process, they wrangle not only with the physical ravages of the disease and the danger inherent in the act of lovemaking, but also with themes that have obsessed women and men throughout history: commitment, intimacy, caring for each other, need.

According to the program notes, Alan Bowne died in 1989. Although I'm unfamiliar with his other work, if Beirut is any indication, the playwright was not afraid to go the distance with harrowing material. In this play, he fully imagines the brutal, absurd, ironic, and erotic aspects of Torch and Blue's world. Although he sometimes puts psychobabble in the mouths of his otherwise less-than-cerebral protagonists, he has created two kids from the boroughs who should be leading ordinary work-and-party lives, but who instead find themselves heroes for love. And Bowne tempers sentimentality about the redemptive powers of love with exchanges such as this one:

Blue: "Without love, without sex, there's nothing."
Torch: "There's pizza."
Marta Garcia's choice of this piece for her directing debut at Area Stage comes as no surprise. As artistic director of Akropolis Acting Company, last season she produced and often directed such individual-versus-society plays as Jean Genet's The Balcony and Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade. While intriguingly staged, the productions at Akropolis concentrated on the broad themes of those works, often at the expense of the actors' attention to text and detail. Garcia leaps forward with Beirut, a character-driven script that forces her to work intimately with her actors. As a result Gomez as Blue and Ruf as Torch portray real people instead of embodying ideas. Unfortunately, because Garcia has directed them to emote relentlessly, the pair are so busy telling us they are real that they fail to engage us as completely as they might have.

As Torch, an Italian kid from Bensonhurst (Saturday Night Fever meets the plague), the hunky Ruf appears less dissipated than he should, considering he's living on rations in a dump and has contracted a dreaded disease. His rejection of Blue comes across as being noble, but shading his performance with suppressed lust would have lent it more credibility. In turn, Gomez's performance as Blue lacks sophistication. The character's insistence on making love with Torch is a plea for connection in an alienated world. As interpreted by Gomez, however, this insistence seems immature, based more on soap opera notions of love than on the real thing. Still, the actress displays a quirky confidence, strutting about the stage with plenty of Queens-girl attitude while exhibiting incisive comic timing. Ultimately the script's blend of black humor and brutality is most clearly illuminated by Paul E. Tei's tongue-in-cheek performance as a guard during a short interrogation scene.

Scenic designer James Faerron turns the stage into a cavernous hovel by using a pastiche of hurricane shutters, graffiti, and wood. This intricate set finds itself transformed on alternating nights when an entirely different show, the two-act Kvetch, takes the stage. The new set, a black-and-white op-art representation of the inside of a neurotic brain (designed, again, by Faerron) proves to be the most imaginative aspect of this overwrought comedy that plays like a Mad magazine parody of Portnoy's Complaint.

When uptight salesman Frank (Erik Fabregat) invites one of his co-workers, Hal (Matt Glass), to a dinner prepared by Frank's wife, Donna (Amy Rosenblum), all appears domestically tranquil -- on the surface. But what the characters say to each other vastly contradicts what they think inside their heads, and Berkoff conveys this dichotomy by freezing the action in the middle of polite conversation while the actors interject raging internal monologues. And who has not smiled brightly during social situations while seething within? Unfortunately this observation about human behavior seems to be the only point of this interminably shrill production, which goes on one and a half acts too long. The outside-inside shtick moves from kitchen to dining room to bedroom to office ad nauseam, and on the way we're subjected to what passed for humor back when crudely insulting women was considered funny. (Some of Frank's scintillating lines to or about his wife include: "Shut that stupid hole"; "You ignoramus slut"; "I married the mouth and inherited the belcher [his mother-in-law].") More than being offensive, for me such writing is just plain boring.

That Glass, as a divorced closet case, and Mike Benitez, as a garment center merchant, manage to bring dimension to their stock roles says volumes about their acting skills. Had director John Rodaz toned down the whine and scream levels on Rosenblum's and Fabregat's performances, perhaps we might have glimpsed their acting capabilities as well. For my time and money, however, little would redeem Steven Berkoff's retro domestic misery script, which recycles every fart and belch joke in human history. Yet Kvetch, a major hit for Area Stage in 1993, has been reprised because audience members who loved it then have lobbied for its return. And the place was packed the night I saw it.

Who can account for taste?

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Pamela Gordon