Call Holding

During the better part of the 1980s and '90s, AIDS became the focus of some of America's most gifted playwrights, creating a crushing wave of scripts about the disease. In less than 15 years, more than 30 plays were written on the subject. In fact, starting in 1985 with Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (one of the longest-running plays ever at New York's Public Theater) and William Hoffman's As Is (the first Broadway show about the syndrome), you could argue that AIDS "infected theater in America," as Hoffman himself has put it. During the '90s, after the initial glut of stories that focused on the polemics of loss and grief, playwrights learned to turn it into something surprising.

But none of the most notable dramatists has done what the lesser-known, quietly irreverent and disarmingly angry Robert Chesley did at the dawn of the epidemic. Way back in 1986, his hair-raising and weirdly unsettling Jerker addressed raw, unadulterated sex in the age of AIDS, a subject that many polite writers daintily ignored. Jerker comes complete with hard-ons and bodily fluids (it has been called "pure pornography presented on stage as art"). That makes the production, now at Theatre New West, stand out (pun intended) from the crowd of other AIDS-inspired scripts only that much more.

Into the titillating world of phone sex we spin, when J.R. (Glen Fillmore) sits up in bed and appears to be fondling himself under the covers as he makes a call. On the other side of the stage, Bert (Brett Cullum) answers his phone, from bed.

Though it's clear from the start that this is an anonymous call, Bert stays on the line when J.R. asks, "You hard?"

"Yeah," answers Bert. "I'm hard, sort of."

"You touching yourself?" asks J.R.

"No," says Bert, clearly curious.

"I am. Feels good."

The phone call gets increasingly graphic as each man describes his penis and what he's doing to himself, in a sequence that becomes more shocking even as it becomes more mesmerizing. This is live theater, after all, and what's irradiating the stage feels vaguely like the weird green glow of pornography. One can't help thinking that surely the script will shift focus, get on to the more serious, more theatrical, more artistic moments. That Chesley doesn't let us off so easily is part of the script's audacious intelligence. In fact, four more scenes consist of nothing more than erotic phone calls that include fantasies of sadomasochism and incest, along with more heated discussions of body parts.

But it is finally not the bizarre smuttiness of these initial scenes that makes them so remarkable -- though the in-your-face graphics certainly set these moments apart from most anything else likely to be seen on the legitimate stage. The real wonder is the striking intimacy and tenderness that develops through the phone sex. Though the calls are anonymous, it doesn't take long before these strange lovers are giggling over the phone lines like teenage sweethearts. They even wish each other "sweet dreams" at one point.

This capacity for intimacy and tenderness -- even in the seemingly dark moral dungeons of anonymous sex -- is what Chesley is trying to get at. Written at a time when some ranted that gay men deserved AIDS because of their hell-bound lifestyles, Jerker is a right-back-at-you screed against an ideology that said the mid-'80s gay-bar/bathhouse lifestyle was evil.

Anonymous sex isn't the devil's work, argues Chesley, it's simply a different kind of love. And the case he makes here is remarkably convincing.

The characters remain anonymous, but they begin to reveal more about themselves. J.R. was in Vietnam and Bert has many sick friends. J.R. argues that because he's seen the ugliness of war, he knows that gay love isn't wrong: "If I love a hundred men in one night…that is good -- really, truly, basically good…it's just the opposite of evil." And they discuss how scared they are about getting sick. In all this, there's the angry and sad voice of a playwright who speaks what he believes to be the truth in raw, frank words.

It is nearly impossible to resist the weirdly innocent-sounding earnestness of Chesley's arguments. That's especially so when the cast clearly believes in the playwright. Cullum is youthful and energetic as pretty boy Bert. But Fillmore, as the older, sadder J.R., carries the show. His face reflects a hangdog loneliness that makes his longing for intimacy seem that much more heartfelt.

As usual with Theatre New West, the technical elements are primitive at best. But the snap-on lights and twin beds indicating the two men's apartments suffice. Director Joe Watts has done well to get so much out of his cast on such a pared-down stage.

The biggest star, however, is Chesley's script. The playwright, who died in 1990, remains one of the pioneers in AIDS plays. His Night Sweat opened in 1984, a year before Kramer produced The Normal Heart or Hoffman brought AIDS to Broadway. And unlike so many AIDS-related scripts, the strange and powerful Jerker remains provocative and surprisingly fresh.

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Lee Williams