With “Beirut,” playwright Alan Bowne moves from allegory to reality in his not-so-far-fetched examination of a society gone mad with fear and ignorance. The questions he proffers demand answers. Exactly how much human dignity can be apprehended by an overly conservative government before the question of living or dying becomes moot?
Set in the distant future where the plague ravages America, the populace must be tested for the virus regularly and stickered with a P or N (Positive or Negative). Restricted to quarantined ghettos, a decision apparently made by reactionary bureaucrats, those who test positive have no contact– except by radio–with the outside world.
Further government control monitors, via “sex detectors” (Big Brother-type cameras), for forbidden sexual activity between “negatives” and requires the wearing of baggy clothing to diminish stimulation. Pregnancy is a capital offense–talk about a breakdown of the “family unit.” Dance clubs, theaters, sports events all close as potential health hazards.
Into the Lower Eastside ghetto of Beirut sneaks Blue (Katherine Armstrong) in search of Torch (Dennis Henning), the object of her unconsummated love.
Incredulous of the risks Blue is willing to take and unwilling to assume the responsibility for her infection, Torch resists Blue’s pleas to let her stay. When Blue anguishes that there is no life in the outside world and their time together means everything, at any cost, Torch finally relents.
Director William Criswell molds his sincerely impassioned cast into an oasis of humanity in vortex of chaos. Unfortunately, Criswell has not found the seesawing give-and-take dynamics between the two characters necessary to move the play beyond its general intensity.
Finding one note as a point of departure–but never departing — Henning’s desperation and inner struggle between desire and responsibility fail to establish pathos, and his arguments become redundant. His cry “I hate my body!,” though, does cut the audience to the quick.
Armstrong’s freely offered Blue has trouble with the script early in the play. It isn’t until Blue is humiliated and scared by a guard (Rodney Scott) from the Elision Patrol that she becomes accessible. From this point, Armstrong’s maintenance of her resolve in spite of rejection and Henning’s graphic description of the inevitable death that will follow becomes at the same time sensual and pure unconditional love.
Stephan Ruiz’s sets and Susan Diamond’s lights and sound have created a hell-on-earth in the armpit of New York’s Lower Eastside.
“Beirut’s” relevance in the light of the AIDS epidemic is obvious. Its more subtle timeliness lies in its relation to the ’92 election and just which candidate’s regime is more likely to lead to a similar societal condition.