Beirut' means plague, and difficult decisions
Review: The 1987 drama views a couple caught in the vise of an
unnamed, HIV-like virus.
By ERIC MARCHESE
SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

Two-character dramas have been a staple of the theater world since Broadway's lean years. As such, they have much in common with the so-called "kitchen sink" teleplays of the 1950's' harsh looks at reality through the eyes of once-idealistic individuals beaten down by the system.

This style of theater and the fear and paranoia of AIDS in the early 1980s seem tailor-made for each other. As such, Alan Bowne's "Beirut" interpolates an uncontrolled plague into a semi-fascistic American government of "the near future." Originally staged in 1987, by which time AIDS was epidemic, the drama, without ever once attaching a name to the microorganism or the disease, puts into sharp focus the dread of a virus that ravages the body.

But lest you believe "Beirut" is little more than a cerebral exercise, take a look at Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's staging which, like most of the troupe's productions, brings out the humanity inherent in Bowne's text.

The basic scenario, and the searing afterimage of "Beirut," is of a seminude man and woman in a small, dark room, dissecting the nature of their relationship. This may sound to some like Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune" or John Patrick Shanley's "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," but in "Beirut," larger issues are at stake than the state of being a couple.

The man is Torch (Alex Walters), the woman Blue (Jami McCoy). We learn from their hushed, often urgent and frequently heated conversation that they live in a New York City that has, like other major urban areas, been swept by a deadly, plague-like virus so new there's no treatment or cure “ or even a name, for that matter “ and that within a vaguely apocalyptic framework, "sex is a capital crime."

Torch has been infected by the virus. Blue hasn't. He lives in a quarantine zone on the Lower East Side known as Beirut, and she leaves her Brooklyn home, at great risk, to break the quarantine and see him.

Dave Barton's stark staging of this brief, potent drama brings out the urgency of their condition. Torch can't see how love could exist amid a deadly disease; Blue can't see the worth of any existence if it means living without love, whatever the risks.

As drawn by Bowne, the duo are at an impasse: He aches for intimacy with her, but fears infecting her which, he notes, would be tantamount to murder. She aches for intimacy with him no matter the risks.

With electricity being rationed, Torch's shabby, makeshift home is primitive, lit most of the time only by candles (Shannon Lee Blas' lighting design neatly approximates this low-level incandescence).

There is a third character, played by Rick Kopps as an unwilling member of the "lesion patrol" sent to make random visits to the
infected. Grimly sadistic, he forces humiliating inspections by flashlight. Worse yet is his discovery of Blue's presence – a perfect opportunity for him to indulge in self-gratification at the couple's expense.

Bowne, though, wisely makes this plot strand a minor detour, keeping "Beirut" on track as an in-your-face look at a pair of lovers caught in an unforgiving vise. We wonder if this bleak future is indeed our own, and Bowne's text and this fine staging make their point: All intimate human contact carries risks of various sorts, fatal disease or no.

The now 11-year-old Rude Guerrilla troupe has chosen "Beirut" to inaugurate its Second Stage program. Intermittently throughout the season, productions like this one will crop up on the schedule, with weekend matinees and early evening performances alongside plays from the company's primary season. If "Beirut" is any indication, the new program should be a fruitful one both artistically and commercially.

KUCI Theatre Reviews

            Can love thrive in safety, or does love require reckless abandon? In his difficult, yet touching one act play, Beirut, the late Alan Bowne asks this question of his audiences. Bowne’s play takes place in the midst of an apocalypse, but it’s by no means apocalyptic. What the play wants to know are the limits of love, or, more specifically, what love must do to survive in the midst of a natural atrocity. It’s definitely a play for adults, but, quite frankly, in embodies values that should be passed to our children.

            The story of Beirut is simple. It’s set in New York City in an unpronounced era. A viral disease borne in the body fluids is ravishing the nation. A series of draconian health laws have been enacted in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. These new laws include the criminalization of sex and pregnancy; under these laws, becoming pregnant carries with it a death sentence. Bowne never gives the disease a name, but references to viruses, retroviruses and fluid-born contagion make it quite obvious what he’s talking about. Those infected with the virus are labeled […] and relocated to a concentration camp called Beirut. A young man named Torch, a “P,” lives in Beirut, a vermin-ridden place. He lives in a burned out apartment strewn with rubbish. The only food he’s given to eat comes in vacuum packed cans. He walks about the apartment all day long, wearing the same filthy pair of boxer shorts he occasionally uses to wipe his nose with. The only furniture he has is an old mattress, a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a couple of votive candles and a clock radio. Occasionally, an inspector comes around to check his body for lesions. Without warning, there’s a knock on the door. It’s a young woman, Blue, bearing gifts: cigarettes, fresh clothes, some food. In a New York minute, Blue strips down to her skivvies and begins teasing Torch mercilessly. Blue and Torch are [a couple], and more than anything else, Blue desires her [lover]; the risk no longer matters.

            Despite the horror of its setting, Beirut is actually a very sexy piece of theatre. There’s the obvious; with two beautiful young actors naked on a storefront stage, there’s bound to be some fireworks. Mere nudity, however, isn’t the chief cause of sexy in this play. This play suggests the great Tennessee Williams classic The Rose Tattoo. These two are deeply in love, therefore the process that separates them is irrational. Blue’s demand for sex, however, isn’t irrational at all. Torch is as much a part of her as are her breasts, or her legs, or her ears, for that matter. Losing him to health laws is like losing a limb; there’s bound to be phantom pains. Her phantom pains are made even more excruciating by the fact that Torch is alive, and, at least for the moment, quite well. It’s completely irrational. Blue is entitled to her love, and so, for that matter, is Torch, yet despite the cruelty of his act, Torch must pull away; it’s the rational thing to do. In truth, the only thing separating these two is a law. That’s the worst kind of phantom pain. The couple’s love for each other is, to borrow the cliché, unconditional; it’s also completely unsatisfied with anything else. Love like this is sexy, regardless of what the actors look like or what they’re wearing. It’s fitting that Bowne’s play involves a heterosexual couple. In the 1980s, the religious right successfully labeled AIDS the “gay plague,” but, despite their labels, AIDS was merely a disease. AIDS had many victims in the eighties; some were gay, of course, but others were straight, despite the propaganda. One of the chief tragedies of AIDS is that it robbed a nation of its ability to express love; in the eighties, some folks even feared shaking hands with a gay person; they may be infected.

            Dave Barton’s production is excellent, and, again, the acting style is simple, perfectly suited to a storefront theatre. The production takes advantage of David Scaglione’s superb set and Shannon Lee Blas’ atmospheric lighting plot for The Cut. Alex Walters plays Torch. He’s a very likeable young man and a strong presence on the stage. Jami McCoy is an implacable force in this play; insistent, almost ruthless in her love. She’s also, quite obviously, a beautiful young woman.

            Alan Bowne’s play Beirut doesn’t rage. Its lack of rage may be its chief asset, frankly. The 1980s was a dark time in American history. There were many Americans who had a good reason for rage, and, perhaps, chief among them were AIDS victims. Alan Bowne chose, instead, to find love in the difficulty. Beirut is a tender play, despite the anger that swirls about it. That tenderness preserves the play’s cogency to this very day. –Keith David Dillon

 

Some factual corrections were made to this review—note brackets—but nothing affecting the author’s opinions.     

Rude Guerrilla revisits 'Beirut'
LA Times by David Nichols

Given all that has and has not changed about AIDS since 1987, when "Beirut" premiered, it's noteworthy how much drama it retains. As the determined but uneven revival at Rude Guerrilla Theater Company demonstrates, when Alan Bowne's
dystopian look at romance amid quarantine works, it works on the solar plexus.

Set on the Lower East Side of a Manhattan divided by an unspecified plague, "Beirut" follows two disparate lovers. Torch (Alex Walters) is the infected hero, first seen fitfully sleeping on a mattress amid piles of crumpled pamphlets and federally issued canned goods. Into this dank purgatory comes Blue (Jami McCoy), his uninfected girlfriend, who has bluffed her way in by faking the posterior tattoo that denotes virus carriers. This is verifiable since both spend much of the play in their underwear and less.

Their graphic colloquy evolves into a plea for love in the face of annihilation. Torch initially rebuffs Blue, who prefers risking her life with him to spending it alone. The plot swerves when the guard (Rick Kopps) makes his flashlighted inspection for lesions, at which point director Dave Barton's staging is most vital.

Elsewhere, his game production has its moments of raw punch, but the requisite urgency comes and goes. Walters and McCoy, more human-scaled than archetypal originators Michael David Morrison and Marisa Tomei, are certainly uninhibited
and committed. Yet their over-studied accents and exposed technique denote still-forming characterizations.

Nor is the pervasive sense of totalitarian existence that spurs the pair's desire an unwavering fait accompli. The script loses intensity whenever outdated terminology and attitudes intrude on our awareness. Although "Beirut" still has
social and histrionic value, its effect here is more sporadic than relentless.

"Beirut," Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. 4:30 p.m.
Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 3. Adult audiences. $20. (714) 547-4688.
Running time: 1 hour.

Beirut
January 09, 2008
Backstage West By Eric Marchese

A man and a woman, scantily clad, alone in a room, flirting with intimacy, discussing what has transpired between them -- that's the basis for Alan Bowne's brief yet potent drama. And while it may remind many theatregoers of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, this tale is set in a not-too- distant, vaguely apocalyptic future when sex is a capital crime and a deadly, plaguelike virus, so new there's no treatment or cure, is sweeping major urban areas, causing the powers that be to mandate quarantine zones around the infected.

Torch (Alex Walters) is infected; his girlfriend, Blue (Jami McCoy), is not. One night she leaves her Brooklyn home and, at great risk, visits Torch at his shabby new makeshift home on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a quarantine zone called Beirut. His food and electricity are rationed, his existence almost primitive: Clothed in boxer shorts, he eats out of cans by candlelight (low-level incandescence nicely effected by Shannon Lee Blas). Torch's and Blue's views, as made plain in Dave Barton's stark staging, are diametric: Torch aches for intimacy with Blue but fears infecting her, which, he notes, would be tantamount to murder. He can't see how love can even exist amid the deadly outbreak. Blue aches for intimacy with Torch despite
all risks. Fatal potential or no, she can't see the worth of any existence without love.

The "plague" is never named, but it sounds an awful lot like AIDS, leaving us to wonder if this bleak future is indeed our own. Bowne's text is convincing and, because it's so astute, frightening because he, and this fine production, make the ultimate point that all love, all sex, all intimate human contact, carries risks -- whether to body or soul.

Presented by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company at the Empire
Theater,

202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

Sat. 4:30 p.m., Sun. 6 p.m. Jan. 5-Feb. 3.

(714) 547-4688. www.rudeguerrilla.org.