I’ve now seen three AIDS plays held up as classics: and of them, My Night with Reg is the only one that breaks my heart. As Is is full of rage but has a soap opera soul; Angels in America has lost all of its urgency as 9/11 made it a quaint recollection of a more innocent time. My Night with Reg, currently being revived at the Donmar, stays focused on what really matters in theater – human relationships – and slips in AIDS like a stiletto that slides between your ribs unfelt, taking your breath from you forever.
The plot, such as it is, is trivial; men gather together in a house and talk to each other about each other. Each scene is set in a nearly unchanging house; it’s difficult to tell that any time has past- in fact, the second scene seems like it may be “evening of the same day” after a dinner part, but as the conversations play out, it becomes clear that much time has passed, and while little seems to have changed, hearts are aging and memories are accumulating and the great, sad accretion of life (and death) is taking its toll on all present, no matter how handsome and witty they still seem, scene after scene.
The group of men around whom the play centers are all old college (uni in English parlance) friends, and when the get together – which happens rarely (and never with the invisible Reg) – you can see the exuberance and lust for life of the early twenties zinging out of them as they joke, dance, and sing with each other with the easy camaraderie (and hints of old lusts) that really only happen with friendships of a decade or more. You laugh a little at host Guy (Jonathan Broadbent), so pudgy and nerdy and supportive; admire sexy John (Julian Ovenden) while wondering if he actually has any heart under his perfectly sculpted exterior; and wish you could have Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) over to your party because he really is just that funny and smart. Despite this being a reunion for the men, to me it had that timeless feeling of any friendships that resume right where the left off years ago, while also having an interesting touch of British reserve in the amount of emotional honesty the various characters allowed themselves. It still had the thick lashings of sexual honesty I see (enviously) in gay men’s relationships … but their hearts stayed hidden.
Until, well, scenes two and three. Death rises, sex becomes less a sport than a grief control mechanism, and the happiest songs in the world become paeans to the dreams we’ve all had to give up on and the banal realities that have been left behind. It all became a bit like the Japanese love of cherry blossoms – beauty is so much easier to appreciate in the face of its ephemerality. And when we’re living life, we so often don’t realize that a goodbye really is an ending, that the people you see every day will suddenly just never be there again. And for a brief period of time, those lovely, loving, lovable fonts of life were being mowed down one after another and it seemed like it was never going to stop. In the face of that, all you get is a dance and maybe a singalonga and maybe somebody to keep you warm at night, but mostly what you get is the realization that we all end up alone. Even though I had to remind myself I was just watching actors go through a script, that message was still entirely real, and beautifully conveyed. It was an excellent evening and well worth the many, many time I sat there hitting F5 and hoping someone would change their minds at the last moment and decide not to go: and even at top price it was absolutely worth every pound I paid and every minute of my time.
(This review is for a performance that took place Saturday afternoon, August 30th, 2014. I spent the rest of the week wishing I had time to write it up just in case someone else who’d appreciate this play didn’t know how good it was. It closes September 27th.)