we can live with. John Nara is the still-young artistic director of
Simply New Theatre, but in his heart of hearts he really prefers shows
that are complex and, well, time-honored. Last fall he won smiles and
applause for an unlikely revival of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, a high-flown drama of Tudor martyr of conscience, Thomas More. In Safe Sex, now
at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Studio, he returns to the second
Reagan administration, when showman Harvey Fierstein was still thought
of as a playwright. In the earlier reign of Simply New Theatre, Nara
directed another production of Safe Sex in June 1989, with some of the cast appearing here. There are things in this show Nara still wants us to heed.
Fierstein, who turns 56 this year, is now such a presence that this week the New York Times is sponsoring a seminar on his life and times. Advance word on that meeting does not promise any attention given to Safe Sex, and indeed Nara breaks away from conventional wisdom in his championing of it. The full title, Safe Sex: A Comedy in Three Plays, reflects its development at Café La Mama as well as suggesting an echo of Fierstein’s earlier Torch Song Trilogy (1982), also a uniting of three barely connected works. Safe Sex
was a critical and box-office bust at its premiere, running for only
nine performances in April 1987. The third and longest play, “On Tidy
Endings,” was rewritten and expanded into the 1988 TV movie Tidy Endings with Fierstein and Stockard Channing.
The title Safe Sex is a bit
misleading, despite the program’s cover art showing a raised male thumb
with a condom on it. (We know the thumb is male because it’s connected
to a lean, muscular, bare torso.) By 1987 with the full tide of the
AIDS epidemic and the rhetoric of people like Nancy Reagan, the phrase
“safe sex” carried resonances it had never had before and has somewhat
lost since. In short, the gay sexual revolution of Torch Song Trilogy is
over. While the middle playlet is actually titled “Safe Sex,” it’s
really more about a kind of odd couple, a Punch and Judy lovers’
quarrel. Neither is safe sex an issue in “On Tidy Endings,” in which no
sexual encounters are contemplated.
Instead, it is only the first playlet,
“Manny & Jake,” that addresses the implicit theme of the whole
title. Manny (Bill Molesky) suns himself on a deserted beach (Heather
Buck’s sound design gives us breakers), meditating with a wordless
mantra that sounds like a mix of Hebrew chant and Buddhist incantation.
Sandal-shod Jake (Garrett Heater) ambles by and asks the meaning of
what Manny is not quite saying. “I’m praying for sex,” Manny answers.
“Well, I’m the answer to your prayers,” Jake offers.
While both may be hot to trot, there’s
the ominous question of having the unspeakable “it.” To show how
careful they must now be about the exchange of bodily fluids, Manny
neatly folds a tear-stained handkerchief and tucks it into a zip-lock
bag. The enforced restraint also means their presumable safe encounter
will be short on emotion. Manny: “We can’t kiss.” Jake: “I don’t care.”
Manny: “I do.”
Bitchy insult humor marks the second
playlet, “Safe Sex,” augmented by a huge visual gag. Ghee (Dan Tursi)
and Mead (Bill Molesky) sit astride opposite ends of a red seesaw, with
the more corpulent Ghee lifting Mead into the air during much of the
sparring. At the same time, Mead is the more solid one, who likes to
knock back a few beers with the boys and suffers no neuroses. Molesky
portrays Mead with a back-turned baseball cap. Ghee, holding down his
end of the teeter-totter, is the flighty, prissy, complaining one,
often grumbling about Mead’s lack of hygiene: “I was trying to keep
your stink off me; I was bathing for two.” Running through the squabbling is a grudging awareness of how the homosexual community has adjusted to the scourge of AIDS.
Tursi becomes a substantially different
character as Arthur in the post-intermission “On Tidy Endings,” a
longer drama with more polemic and fewer gags. Fierstein played this
role in the original production and in the TV movie, and Arthur is
unmistakably his mouthpiece. In an empty apartment a young professional
woman, Marion (Maureen Harrington), tries to bring order to the
business of her late husband, Colin, who we will find has died of AIDS.
She speaks with her son, Jimmy (Tim Nara), a fast-talking lawyer, June
(Binaifer Dabu) and finally with Arthur, with whom Colin lived after
his divorce from Marion.
The ex-wife is a model of comportment,
but Arthur bristles with defensiveness. Does Jimmy blame Arthur for his
father’s death? No. Does everyone know Colin had AIDS before he lived
with Arthur? They’re learning. Tensions rise to explosiveness when
Arthur learns that Marion has answered condolence cards addressed to
both of them, and that Colin’s obituary, written by his secretary,
never mentions the companion who nursed him in his last months and held
him in his arms when he died.
Arthur’s (and Fierstein’s) anger at the
straight world’s dismissal of the validity threatens to tip our
sympathy to the obviously decent Marion. He makes nasty cracks to a
discarded but grieving wife. But all involved, including actor Tursi
and director Nara, pull matters back with a beautifully written speech
in which Arthur itemizes all the pathetic tchotchkes he and Colin
collected on their futile world tour of clinics offering quack remedies
for an incurable disease.
Some of Nara’s advantage as a director
is the confidence he inspires in performers. “All-star” may sound like
inflated praise for a community theater production, but all the actors
in Safe Sex, except for young master Nara, are regular winners or nominees of the Syracuse New Times
Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards, including Tursi, a Fierstein
specialist, and head of Simply New’s rival company, Rarely Done.
Molesky and Tursi, who played both their
quite different roles 19 years ago, know how to plumb the depths and
strike sparks. Garrett Heater, a stalwart of the Baldwinsville Theater
Guild, makes Jake more than a straight man. Maureen Harrington and
Binaifer Dabu bring empathy and humor to straight women in a play
dominated by gay men. Overall, director Nara’s conviction of the wit
and emotional depth of Safe Sex overrides the conventional critical dismissal of it.
This production runs through Sunday, April 6. See Times Table for information.