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    Quarantine angst

    "Beirut" is a somewhat dated but still high-energy mid-'80s drama about a couple's feverish struggle with sex in a future dominated by AIDS paranoia.


    "Beirut" is an early AIDS-era drama by the late Alan Bowne, which now shows its age but still packs a punch.

    We find ourselves in a grimy one-room apartment — a cell, almost — on New York's Lower East Side, which the locals now refer to as "Beirut" because it's become a hellhole where sufferers of a disease (unnamed but obviously AIDS) are quarantined to protect the uninfected and presumedly more moral population uptown.

    Written by: Alan Bowne.
    Directed by: Douglas Farwell.
    Cast: Christopher Amitrano, Kate Everard, Kevin Dwane.
    Flatiron Playhouse
    119 West 23rd St.
    Oct. 25 - Nov. 4, 2001

    In this broken-down room lives a broken quarantinee named Torch, a well-built young man who, we notice right away, is tattooed in a very private spot with a large letter "P." His life, apparently, consists of sitting, sleeping and listening to the radio alone in his room, waiting for the guards to come check him for lesions and never being allowed outside.

    Hearing a noise, he rushes excitedly to the door and calls the name of his onetime girlfriend, "Blue," but Blue isn't there. Then, when she does show up, his excitement immediately turns to a reflexive repulsion because he knows the uninfected young woman is not allowed in "Beirut" and the two are forbidden to even touch. These are the regulations of the post-plague world in which the disease has abolished civilization and love itself. Violations will be discovered by ubiquitous "sex detectors" and violators will be dealt with severely.

    Blue — a curvaceous Queens girl who apparently lives a double life of respectability on the outside and forbidden, burning desire on the inside — brings news of what society has turned into. "Calvin Klein has a reprise of the muumuu," she mentions. Later, in one of her repeated attempts to get closer to Torch, she suggests: "We can dry-kiss — it's the new thing!"

    The persistent question in the play is, will they or won't they? And since this is a cautionary sort of anti-romance, the prospect that they will is as horrifying as it is exciting. The characters (played lustily by Christopher Amitrano and Kate Everard) almost burst out of their underwear as they wrestle over this thin line between desire and death.

    The play does have a couple of weaknesses. For one, the dialogue is such a self-conscious imitation of working-class realism that it's a little unreal. I've never heard anyone who actually talks the way these two sometimes do.

    More broadly, the play is of its time, circa 1987. It was a time when AIDS was a murkier subject than it is now, and some people feared that they'd die from even shaking hands with an HIV-positive person. It's this mid-'80s hyper-fear that the play tries to capture, and it does so quite effectively. We watch the two actors' feverish encounter with our own sense of lascivious excitement tempered by the nagging knowledge that it would be terribly wrong for them to get together. Our conflicting emotions are caught up in the moment just as the characters' are.

    If the play were written today, it would have to be more nuanced. We've had almost 15 years more experience with AIDS, enough to learn that nobody is getting the disease by hugging. Yet, it does capture the panic of the moment when it was written, the brand-new fear associated with sex and the reactionary impulse that some conservatives had to lock up all the HIV-positive sinners for everyone's good. Let's hope that this is a vision of an alternate future rather than a still-possible future.

    OCTOBER 26, 2001

    Reader comments on Beirut:

  • Christopher Armitrano   from Steve, Nov 6, 2001
  • beirut   from Eli Gaphary, Feb 16, 2005
  • Re: beirut   from Cynthia, Feb 6, 2006
  • Insulting   from ladyomega, Feb 6, 2006
  • Re: Insulting   from Eli Gaphary, Jun 4, 2006
  • [no subject]   from simara, Nov 2, 2006
  • 1991 character   from marcy, Feb 10, 2012

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