It’s been a lovely, warm, sunny summer, the kind that turns a young woman’s thoughts to sitting in the garden and having a nice drink in the evening. So what was I doing, I asked myself, going into a dark room to watch a play about AIDS? It was totally against the whole concept of summertime. But what was I supposed to do? I’d said yes to the Finborough’s invite to see As Is before I’d even looked up anything about the play (or finished reading the email), so I had no one to blame but myself that I wasn’t heading off to see a comedy (or even a science fiction blockbuster, the other thing I like to see during this time of the year). I said yes because it was the first London production in 25 years of a play that had won an Obie … and, well, because I’d been invited. I don’t get on a lot of lists for press nights so I tend to feel immensely flattered when a theater I frequent considers ME a worthy. (And, dude, Stephen Frye was THREE SEATS OVER FROM ME – illustrious company indeed!)
Anyway, so into the cavern of gloom I went, dreading my evening of preaching, cliches, obvious plot twists, GOD ISSUE PLAYS HOW I HATE THEM. At least the air conditioning was working …
Things got off to a bit of a bad start, with a Jewish/Irish/Northern former nun (Clare Kissane, her accent was all over the place) bellowing her life story at us poor front row dwellers from one foot away. I was having a hard time suspending my disbelief and getting into any kind of story; I had a sudden fear the night was actually going to be actively bad. It wasn’t helped when the proper play actually started with Rich (Tom Colley) and Saul (David Poynor) having a a canned, hysterical breakup argument with each other, “who gets the copper pots/who gets the Barcelona chair.” Poynor overused a trembling hand to express stress and it all felt very heavy-handed. And somehow I just felt a sense of DOOM DOOM DOOM why did I ever come.
And then … that thing happened. It was the early 80s. In front of my eyes, I was seeing gay male culture in New York at a cultural peak, beautiful raw unfettered sexuality expressed in all of its manifest forms, a freedom experienced that had not been present for centuries. These gorgeous, yummy, smart (and sometimes stupid) men, reveling in the wonder of being alive and being human, were dancing and flirting and loving their lives in front of me … and everything was on the verge of change. Rich’s shallowness and desire to live a life that was meaningful for him was about to face-slam into a realization of the fallibility of human flesh. On a less personal scale, the societal movement toward greater acceptance and tolerance was being cut off by the fear of death and an easy willingness to re-ghettoize a population that was just teetering on societal acceptance. All of it, to me, seemed a paen to a lost era of joy.
Oddly, Rich and Saul’s story never became maudlin, preachy, over-sentimentalized, or a mere tool for the author to make some political points. Instead, it stays focused on their relationship with each other, which is the kind of thing that actually transcends a historical moment and becomes universal, and thus, as a play, lasting. While the medical and social situation they were in was firmly rooted in the world of the early 80s, the concerns they had were universal. And, given where the playwright chose to cut the play, the obvious move into hagiography was skipped in favor of a visceral reality of relationships based on love, respect, and genuine attraction, faced with the upheaval of a possibly terminal illness. It did not end on a cheapened note; instead, we saw the rudeness and roughness of two people who, underneath the fleeting ties of physical attraction, truly loved and trusted one another. And that, really, was a wonderful thing to see represented on a stage. I left the theater feeling uplifted and exhilarated – absolutely the opposite of what I expected. Twenty-five years later, As Is had so much to offer, and I’m glad I was there to take it in.
(This review is for the performance that took place on Thursday, August 8th, 2013. It continues through Saturday August 31st.)