UNFINISHED BUSINESS: THE AIDS SHOW
at the Project
In Robert Chesley's Jerker, seen earlier this summer at Bailiwick Repertory, a man repeatedly tries to phone his friend. All he ever gets is an answering machine, and the messages he leaves are never returned. The audience knows, but the man doesn't, that his friend has died of AIDS.
Something similar happened to Wayne Buidens, artistic director of Forest Park's Circle Theatre and director of its production of Unfinished Business: The AIDS Show, currently running in Chicago at the Project. Buidens saw Unfinished Business in its Chicago premiere at Bailiwick in 1987, was taken with the work, and later contacted Leland Moss, the principal author and original director, for rights to the show. Moss, a San Franciscan, agreed. When Buidens finally got around to preparing his production this spring, he put in a few calls to Moss's San Francisco phone number and left messages. When his calls were not returned, he contacted some other west coast theater people, who informed Buidens that Moss had died in January of this year.
"Day after day after day after day"--to use the lyric of Stephen Sondheim's song "Not a Day Goes By," which opens and closes Unfinished Business--the AIDS epidemic is with us. Just when things seem to have calmed down, there's a new explosion from the front: somebody else important and surprising dies; word of some new medical breakthrough is heralded and then retracted; some unnerving new development is reported. Last week, when this production opened, confusing evidence that a dentist with AIDS had transmitted the syndrome to one of his patients was coming to light, evidence that seemed to contradict previous assumptions about how HIV is spread.
The title Unfinished Business is still all too apt, nine years to the month after the New York Times's story about a cluster of mysterious cancer cases among homosexual men sent shock waves through the gay community (though not through many other segments of society, which helped further the spread of AIDS). What's interesting is that the piece itself, created in 1984-'85 and robbed of much novelty or risk by the passage of time and the corresponding recognition that AIDS is a condition of our era, still works as a theatricalization of a particular time and place.
That time and place is San Francisco, 1981-1985; except for a reference to caseload and death statistics (139,765 American cases reported through June, including 85,430 deaths), no effort has been made to update or relocate the various scenes and songs that make up this revue. The result is that, as in the production at Bailiwick three years ago, Unfinished Business still rouses a peculiar mix of compassion for those afflicted with AIDS and frustration and anger at the irresponsible denial behavior exhibited by people who should have been a lot more responsive to early evidence of a sexually transmitted fatal disease running rampant in the gay community.
The trimmed-down version of the script Buidens has mounted focuses mostly on the impact of AIDS on younger gay men; that emphasis reflects (and may have been prompted by) the general youthfulness of his actors. Though the women appear to be in their 30s and 40s, the males in the cast are just kids, really; they could only have been in high school when the AIDS epidemic first came to light. The people they play are men in their early 20s; but the characters came of age at a time of sexual experimentation, while the actors actually came of age in a time of sexual retrenchment, even paranoia.
Perhaps this explains the relatively restrained handling of material concerning "sharing needles with drag queens," "rimming at the baths," "sitting on [another man's] fist," and other unsafe habits. "I like to do pot and do poppers and get drunk and have sex with strangers. I guess that makes me old-fashioned, but that's what I like!" whines Tim Clifford as a man for whom "party" now means an evening of Trivial Pursuit and pizza. But the line lacks any resonance, not because Clifford's an inexperienced actor (though he is) but because he seems to lack any personal connection with the statement (which, of course, is just as well for him).
A similar callowness pervades this whole production, but the results of that are mixed. Even the campiest jokes expressed by the most flamboyant guys have a toned-down quality; even the most jaded dialogue is delivered with a peculiar innocence and lack of artifice. Lacking the subtlety to unearth much subtext in the sometimes preachy and mawkishly sentimental script (by a dozen people, among them Moss and the other original director, Doug Holsclaw) and songs (by Sondheim, Karl Brown, and Matthew McQueen), the Circle's ensemble possesses a modesty and simplicity that have payoffs of their own. The most accomplished actors are Deanna Norman, who's particularly effective as a woman angrily wondering how her son could die while fag-bashing killers roam free, and Philip Alcala, who combines a dancer's graceful presence with unfettered honesty of expression in various roles, including a perplexed "buddy" sent in over his head to counsel a bitter, dying AIDS patient (only Alcala's smugly health-conscious yuppie aerobics coach is overdone). But Elliot Wimbush (a black actor who handles his unlikely casting as a Jewish phone freak with mischievous aplomb), Anthony P. Lage (unsubtle but heartfelt in a monologue by an ex- hustler reminiscing about his dead friend), Tyron' Sean Perry, Karen Skinner, Barbara Eulenberg, and David Bussey all have their moments; and as an ensemble honed by many past Circle shows, they work together sensitively. Though less skillful than the version directed by Arnold Aprill and Sheila Wurmser at Bailiwick in 1987, Buidens's Unfinished Business is free of the shrillness, pathos pandering, and heavy-handed campiness that plagued the earlier production. And as long as the AIDS crisis itself is unfinished business, this little period piece will always have a place.