If George Orwell had written The Divine Comedy, Beirut would be one of the circles of hell. Alan Bowne wrote the play in the late '80s, when AIDS was causing widespread panic, and he died from AIDS complications shortly after the play's premiere.
It may not sound like an appetizing evening of theater, but the recent production at Mid-City Theatre was as fascinating as it was appalling.
Torch (Christopher Ramage) lounges restlessly in what looks like a cheap and messy apartment. There's a convertible bed and heaps of clothing strewn around the room. All this has a semi-abstract air that emphasizes the symbolic nature of the tale, but it's a sizzling story and the actors were focused and convincing.
Torch is a "Positive" — he has the antibodies showing he's been infected by a new, sexually transmitted fatal disease. He's locked in quarantine. Society is unhinged by this plague, and Positives are imprisoned in a New York tenement called Beirut. "Negatives," or uninfected people, are forbidden from entering the compound. All encounters are monitored by sex detectors, and some transgressing Negatives have been lynched and left hanging on 14th Street as a warning.
Torch's girlfriend Blue (Idella Johnson) arrives. She's a Negative and has risked her life to see him. Her motive is probably love, but that's the one four-letter word the two use sparingly. In general, the play's language is over the top, including that of a sadistic guard who looks for lesions in the dark with a flashlight — a bit of theatrics that strained credulity.
Blue wears a burlap muumuu, since it's illegal to dress provocatively. She drops the dress to reveal an exceedingly sexy outfit: black stockings and a corset. She is determined to provoke Torch. It's an unusual and explicitly erotic struggle. It seems Blue wants to become infected by Torch and stay with him in this prison cell. Torch can't stand the idea of passing on the disease to her. In spite of much trashy talk and behavior, the basic conflict speaks of old-fashioned romantic love.
Fred Nuccio (who plays the guard) directed the play, along with Dane Rhodes.
Beirut is a daring play, and Ramage and Johnson walked the tightrope between exhibitionism and drama with poise. Anyone who lived through the outbreak of AIDS and the accompanying paranoia will recognize the recent past in this grim future. — DALT WONK