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BEIRUT

New Lincoln Theater

The scene is a litter-strewn, gutted apartment in a derelict building. It's night. Rock music is playing, soon followed by an easy-listening love song, which immediately prompts the man in bed to turn off the clock radio. Then, with an elaborate display of scratching and sighing signifying the anomie of many sleepless nights like this, the man crosses the room to piss in a dry toilet. He's naked. He finds some underwear and puts them on, then eats out of a tin can for a while, and finally decides to masturbate. But he's interrupted by a knock at the door, which, after much suspense and a couple more knocks, he finally opens. It's his girlfriend, who has stolen across barricades and made her way into a quarantined zone to find him. She's risked her life to come here. And just to kiss her lover would be to catch his disease.

For all of its absurd pretension and punk romanticism, this opening scene of Beirut remains the most memorable. Like a provocative movie poster, it has promise. Promise without fulfillment. In the end, Beirut seems less like "a love story during the plague years" than a low-budget, sci-fi exploitation of heterosexual AIDS paranoia.

What they call "the plague" in this drama is transmitted not only through blood and semen but also through sweat, saliva, and any other bodily fluid you could mention. The government has responded to the epidemic with mandatory blood tests, quarantined communities, and a ban on sex for the uninfected. Torch, the male lover in this melodrama, has tested positive but so far shows none of the gruesome symptoms, which he periodically describes in lurid detail. He's been quarantined in "Beirut," the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This location, presumably chosen for its radical chic, is derivative of the more intellectually challenging B-movie Escape From New York. Blue, Torch's uninfected and therefore unfulfilled lover, adores him and wants to live with him, but mostly she wants to sleep with him. She removes her dress and taunts him. She doesn't care if she gets the plague. She needs him that bad. But Torch, caught between a boner and the deep black void, can't cave in to such awesome irresponsibility.

So the stage is set for a showdown of sorts. The operative forces are sex and death, those twin mysteries of adolescence. But we're to assume that Torch and Blue, regardless of their silly nicknames, are adults. That proves tougher and tougher as the conflict unfolds. Blue argues that life without Torch is death. Torch tells her that she's an idiot and a bitch because he knows what death really is; it's all those corpses stacked up down at Tompkins Square. They go on like that for a while. Intermittently Blue makes inroads on seducing him, and Torch has to throw her around a bit in a macho way. Eventually Blue pins Torch to the mat with the accusation that his refusal to sleep with her is less a matter of moral responsibility than his inability to pledge commitment. Wooooooo. That gets him. And the question--are they going to fuck or not?--the answer to which you'd figured out an hour earlier anyway, finally gets answered with a tasteful blackout.

When the actors, Peter DeFaria and Karrin Sachs, appear for the curtain call, they've put some clothes on, which suggests that they weren't all that comfortable performing in dirty underwear all evening. But you could tell that anyhow, in the overly casual way they acted and particularly in the sexless make-out and massage scenes. Still, it's odd, because even the artifice of sexual tension is an effective spellbinder. So I can't say that I suffered any crucial lapse of attention during Beirut. I think that question--are they going to fuck or not?--is what made such a success out of Cheers. That, and some decent writing, but mostly that. What is it that's so fascinating about couples arguing in their underwear?

Beirut has some decent writing, too, largely consisting of some amusing lines here and there and spurts of gritty dialogue. She says, "Without love to look for, not even sex, there's nothing." And he says, "There's pizza." She has some good lines as well: "Use the palm of your hand--what am I, a video game?" And in between the moralizing, the exposition, and the sappier stuff, the funny lines carry you along. You could almost, at times, start to believe in these characters. Almost, but not quite, because it's just a trick of banter, very modern, very Brooklyn and Queens, but ultimately it's only generic low-life vernacular without the gift of individuality to distinguish the voices.

Other, major problems bog the script down, especially playwright Alan Bowne's overindulgence in sci-fi sociology. In a binge of feather dusting, the lovers unload truckloads of exposition about the plague, the government, and the outside world in general. It would be as if a loving couple in a contemporary love story inadvertently dropped information about how people lived in buildings, worked five days out of seven, squandered fossil fuels, rendered a portion of their income in taxes, which in turn financed unwanted services, etc. I mean, who cares? Let the audience fill in the blanks. No one wants to sit through an exhaustively detailed explication of a fantasy that, even in its most superficial analysis, is illogical. Are we supposed to believe that the government has the resources to install and monitor "sex detectors" in every room, hallway, nook, and cranny of New York City? What's to keep people from using the backseat of the car?

Well, enough of that. Thoroughness--and Isaac Asimov is a prime example--doesn't necessarily make for good writing. More disturbing is Bowne's cavalier exploitation of the AIDS crisis. This play doesn't enlarge our understanding of how to deal with AIDS. This is a regression into paranoia, ignorance, and greater peril. The plague in Beirut revives misconceptions about AIDS transmission through casual contact, just when Surgeon General Koop has started to make some headway in educating the public. In Beirut there's no such thing as safe sex, which leads to the horrendous conclusion of, what the hell, why bother, just go ahead and do it anyway. You've got to die sometime. Meanwhile, there's love.

That's why I find playwright Bowne, although an amusing writer, an inept playwright and something of dickhead. I think he's best represented by his character, Torch. Played by DeFaria without a whole lot of versatility, Torch is the sort of guy who's the prisoner of his own inner dialogue. Sometimes he thinks with the big head, sometimes with the little head. But the little head wins out. That's Alan Bowne. As for Blue, spunkily performed by Sachs, what can be said for a female character who wants her man to kill her with his dick? If this is Bowne's conception of love, may he get syphilis from a toilet seat.

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