Alan Bowne's 1987 Beirut, a futuristic AIDS morality play receiving its frank Houston premiere at Theater LaB, certainly hits the ground running. A man awakens in the dead of night, rises nude out of bed, walks across his stark room to a table to wash himself from a cooking pot, pulls out his boxers from a pile of strewn clothes, puts them on, eats tuna with his fingers, stares out his solitary sky-lit window, screams a greeting when he hears a noise, returns to bed, turns on psychedelic muzak, gets aroused, shoves his hand into his shorts and begins to masturbate, is interrupted by a frantic knock on the door and opens it to his girlfriend, who, after a tense hello, lifts off her dress and demands that he "fuck" her, even though he's been quarantined for testing positive to an unnamed disease and sex is a capital crime.
For the next hour in this driven, intermissionless play set in a barren flat in Manhattan's Lower East Side, this beer-and-unemployment-type guy and his brassy Queens broad argue and pet, pet and argue. There's nothing subtle in Beirut: these Romeo and Juliet guttersnipes are named Torch and Blue. Play's climax is a climax.
Although intimate contact is against the law, Blue, a negative, wants to venture it because she loves Torch. He, fighting desire, doesn't want sex -- he loves her and doesn't want to infect her. In an age of Big Brother sex detectors and P's tattooed on positives' buttocks, love is not a many-splendored thing. "I can live without love and feel dead, or risk death and feel alive," she says, wearing bra and panties. "With insects [going] in your blood like bullets I shot into you?" is his response. "They can grow babies in test tubes now," she complains. "How come they can't locate a couple of viruses committing sodomy?" Gesturing graphically, he talks about his "bladder sac with turds floating around in it."
The fundamental, tragic drama of AIDS could foster such naked immediacy: since the plague wipes out the immune system, its theatrical representation could theoretically wipe out all but the most basic of concerns. Yet once Bowne's play establishes its bare, life-and-death motifs, it stagnates, becomes claustrophobic.
Beirut brings up, but does not explore, how love relationships depend in part on sex, and how AIDS mandates their revisioning. What price intimacy?, it asks, but only superficially answers. Embrace what, how? Instead of grappling with these crucial issues, the play goes round and round them: Torch cares about Blue too much to want to infect her with his torch; Blue will be blue if she can't caress the man who torches her soul. He doesn't want them to see each other die; she doesn't want to die alone. They butt, um, heads, then, foreplay over, go to bed.
The most interesting thing about Beirut is the language. Not the hammered title, but the hammering dialogue. Communication is hostile, debased, rotten, no matter what the mood or intent, because, bottom line, there's murder in the act of making life and love. Violent words for violent times. Take, for example, what passes for romance: "I could rip off your tits with my teeth." "I'm gonna squeeze your balls till they pop." "I'm gonna gangbang you all by myself." "I'm gonna rape your tush."
But this aggressive, perverse, desperate humor is not consistently employed, and the linguistic intensity is undercut with clunkers ("Jesus, what a hemorrhoid," Torch says of his room), cliches ("We're like a couple of kids playing with fire") and meaninglessness ("A dick is a dick is a cock is a penis").
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Lynn Miller Jr. and Celeste Cheramie are game as Torch and Blue, their Noo Yawk accents as apparent as their revealed bodies. Otis Hardy Maclay has a cameo as a menacing Lesion Patrolman who, after making Torch "crack a smile" and "show me her bush," gives new meaning -- or the original one -- to the phrase "dirty old man." Director Ron Jones competently moves everyone
theater-in-the-round style. But the company can't overcome the mental masturbations of a problematic text.
Though the audience paid rapt attention to the flushed flesh, Beirut is not at all about titillating its viewers. What it is, is confused: privates are public, but most of the fondling, groping and grabbing is not (the play's consummation also takes place under wraps -- under sheets, that is).
The play suggests that the primal pain of AIDS makes us curse it and each other -- hence Beirut's undressed state of verbal and physical crudity. By play's end, though, the characters do something in the face of this denuding onslaught: they have intercourse anyway; in what's supposed to be a true climactic moment, they hold nothing back. But the play does. Given that everything else has already been laid bare, the dramatic momentum just about calls for a literal showing of this symbolic coup de theátre -- one that the playwright, in the name of good taste, shuns. Not wanting to be pornographic, that is, he unintentionally makes the play a bit impotent. We end up with plenty of revelation, but, at the end of the day, it's only skin-deep.