Jerker | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

JERKER, Bailiwick Repertory. Arriving after the first wave of AIDS deaths, Robert Chesley's 1986 play reassured an embattled gay community, extolling the "free love" of the bathhouses while celebrating a new, almost immaculate eroticism--phone sex between virtual strangers. J.R. and Bert may reach out, but they don't touch. For all the explicitness of their nightly rituals--these exchanges are not abstract--they're almost chaste in their choice of imagination over immediacy.

The play lauds the ingenuity of gay lovers who, barred from one kind of intimacy by a disease, invent another. The phone sex that links J.R. and Bert recalls the mutual masturbation in Bent, where two gay prisoners at Dachau achieve orgasm without touching.

Now in a revival by Bailiwick Repertory, which made it a successful late-night show in 1989, Jerker remains what Chesley called it: "A pornographic elegy with redeeming social value and a hymn to the queer men of San Francisco in twenty telephone calls, many of them dirty." Still, it feels more preachy and schematic than it did back then.

Under the confident direction of David Zak, Darren Stephens reprises his role as the hopeful Bert, a historian crippled in Vietnam (a new touch in the script), combining soul and sensuality to create a very caring phone mate. Steve Leonetti plays his gentleman caller with contagious charm and dignity. This time the 75-minute work is performed with no intrusive intermission.

--Lawrence Bommer

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