When it was announced that Harvey Fierstein was writing about "Safe Sex," audiences eagerly awaited the gay playwright's impressions of the age of AIDS. But the much-anticipated play, Fierstein's first since his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning "Torch Song Trilogy," quickly closed on Broadway, due to unrealistic commercial expectations, unsympathetic critics and the play's dramatic flaws, which were magnified by the large theater.
With its thoughtful production, one of the first after the New York debacle, Source Theatre has turned "Safe Sex" into a success at the Warehouse Rep. The play, another trilogy of one-acts, requires intimacy and integrity, which director Juanita Rockwell and her cast -- the remarkable Washington actor Michael Judge, in particular -- amply provide.
Rockwell has given the play a significant new production design as well. Everything in Eric Schaeffer's set -- a sculptural montage of doors and desks and mannequins -- is bronzed, like a baby's shoe. The old world, the no-rules playground of unfettered, impersonal sex, is a thing of the past. And the sight of the still-living, moving in full color in the shadows of that time, is eerie and poignant.
Fierstein isn't writing about those stricken with the disease or how to avoid it. In fact, AIDS is mentioned only twice in the play. "Safe Sex" is about people living with fear, but living nonetheless. AIDS is now a given, and Fierstein, though sometimes excessively sentimental, has no reassurances, no false comfort to offer, just an affirmation that we don't have to be alone, and that people in impossible, even dire, times can still be good to each other. The title itself poses an ironic question: Was there ever such a thing as "safe sex"?
"Manny and Jake," the first and least successful playlet, is a stylized verbal tango in which two men discuss whether they'll go home together. Jake "cruises" the older Manny, who holds him at arm's length. It turns out Manny is infected with the virus, and is so self-conscious and conscientious he spends every waking (and dreaming) moment obsessed with avoiding temptation, anesthetizing himself, asking for "a moment of silence for what we used to do and how it used to feel." Fierstein makes his points, that our ability to make contact is being diminished, that we may not be learning anything from this crisis. But by writing the scene in a kind of prose poetry (there's a repeated variant on "Ten Little Indians"), he forces the actors to struggle with some stiff and stilted lines.
"Safe Sex," the centerpiece and most successfully realized act, is an athletically performed quarrel between Mead and Ghee, former lovers who have reunited at least in part because of fear of AIDS. Mead accuses the cautious, older Ghee of using "safe sex" to avoid intimacy. "AIDS was your salvation," he shouts. "You got your little list of do's and don'ts and you embraced it like a priest takes his vows. God -- you're not scared of AIDS, you're scared of sex." The argument lets Fierstein make another point -- that AIDS has also forced a new, perhaps unwelcome, public profile on gays, and they have to learn to live with that, too. "We're visible now," says Ghee, "seen everywhere -- hospitals, classrooms, obituaries."
This act was originally set on a gigantic seesaw, and the dynamics of the argument were cleverly indicated by who was up and who was down. Rockwell has substituted a squirt-gun battle -- it's funny, but less effective, and distracts from some of the crucial dialogue.
Like the third act in "Torch Song Trilogy," "On Tidy Endings" is the most conventionally structured, and again presents the nuclear family as panacea. Marion arrives at her late husband's apartment, dragging their reluctant son with her. Her husband of 16 years has recently died of AIDS -- he left her three years earlier to live with his lover Arthur, who nursed him up to his death.
"This is about tying up loose ends, not about holding hands," advises Marion's lawyer June, who can't get out of the apartment fast enough. But love and loss are never so matter-of-fact. As Marion and Arthur sit down to sort out who gave whom what -- and who lost what -- she tries valiantly to be brave and good, but her unconscious blunders are interpreted as insensitive slips by Arthur, who rages at her for horning in on his hoard of grief. A grim epiphany brings them to a sort of understanding. Fierstein's writing is awkward in spots, and he occasionally succumbs to the maudlin, but the cumulative evening works in spite of its obvious manipulation.
Rockwell's direction is commendable, and she gets conviction and fervor from the performers. Michael Judge is certainly not playing it safe here -- he gives two astonishingly intimate, revealing performances as Ghee and Arthur, combining quick wit and close-to-the-surface emotion. The other actors are equally strong, particularly Michaeleen O'Neil, who gives Marion an affecting softness and restraint, and Jeff Scott as the playful Mead.
Source is donating $1 from each ticket to the Whitman-Walker Clinic's AIDS Foundation, which provides direct assistance to victims of AIDS.
Safe Sex, by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Juanita Rockwell; set, Eric Schaeffer; lighting, Jennifer Garrett; sound, David Crandall, Gil Thompson. With Bashore Halow, Michael Judge, Robb Kramer, Michaeleen O'Neil, Thaddeus Rudd, Janice Sanders, Jeff Scott. At Source Theatre's Warehouse Rep through Feb. 14.