By Kevin Elyot
Directed by Joel Greenberg
A Studio 180 Production presented by David Mirvish
At the Panasonic Theatre, February 14-26, 2017
How do you make biting yet touching comedy about gay sex under the spectre of AIDS? One way is to choose to emphasize the sad, swift passing of time and the chain of lust, unrequited love, loss, and death, while withholding political comment or the very name of the disease but adding a veneer of Chekhovian melancholy. This is what the late Kevin Elyot did with his superb 115-minute satire on an all-male circle of six English gay men that first premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in England in 1994. There is full frontal nudity in one scene, and a wealth of sexual double-entendres that would delight any devotee of racy wit. The middle-class men change partners on stage, and reportedly offstage as well, and they channel or mischannel their assorted lusts, very much under the shadow of invisible, offstage Reg, a man who succumbs to AIDS after a reputedly hectic life of promiscuity and unsafe sex. Reg is actually an American named Rinaldo, a Hispanic version of Reginald, both derived from the Norse for “powerful ruler.” The erotic joke behind this connotation is that what evidently ruled Reg and his numerous partners was the power of his penis, but it is plainly evident that his penis power could not stave off the fatal disease. But no need to fear that the play is in any way a stern case against gay promiscuity. Elyot (who himself fell victim to the disease just as his playwriting career was in high gear) is no Larry Kramer. He is more in the line of the late Joe Orton, which is to say he can provoke sly or wild laughter and toast flamboyant prurience while undercutting the surface gaiety by a very real sense of regret, grief, and desolation.
Elyot’s excuse for the setup is a mid-1980s housewarming bash for plain, inhibited Guy, thin-haired, bespectacled, and bow-tied in Jonathan Wilson’s affectingly sensitive performance. Poor Guy is a timid romantic copywriter with covert sexual ardour: he wears mitts to masturbate and enjoy release presumably while having phone sex with someone named Brad, who always seems to mistime his calls. His most comic moment is on the sofa with the young housepainter, whose crotch becomes the very object of Guy’s furtive and frustrated look of yearning. Guy is most unlike any of the other males who drop into his flat through the ensuing scenes, as time passes and sexual interactions mutate. Daniel, for instance, who is Reg’s devoted partner, is a passionate extrovert whose boisterously camp humour (including a rendition of David Bowie’s “Starman” atop a sofa) cannot ultimately mask his emotional desolation as the most intimate and disturbing secrets of his unfaithful partner emerge. Jeff Miller portrays him with devilish rompishness until the ultimate breakdown. There is also a conflicted gay couple whose union is coming undone and a young housepainter who add to the sexual quotient with dollops of stress, distress, and lust. Bernie (Tim Funnell) is a conservative bore, decent and justifiably upset by his partner’s insensitivity, while Benny (a thickly moustached, rumpled Martin Happer) is coarse and blunt. Eric, the painter who loves The Police in addition to wanting to be a policeman, is a tall, gangly presence in Alex Furber’s performance that struggles a bit with a Birmingham accent but who serves as an erotic distraction and thickening agent for the sexual misconduct. He drops wounding bricks on the slightly older males (especially Guy) without meaning to be casually insulting.
But the most charismatic, most developed character is John, whom Gray Powell turns into an utterly engrossing character—the handsome one who was a university Dionysus on stage and who uses Reg as his confessor as time begins to shake loose his sexual and emotional confidence. Powell makes a full portrait of the man, showing the pits of guilt, regret, and despair under the surface bonhomie and glamour. His emotional devastation sends shock waves through the theatre, and shows how surface mirth cannot disguise a soul in agony.
Joel Greenberg’s production, deftly designed by John Thompson for middle-class English comfort, and lit by Kimberly Purtell (especially with a medium blue sky wash that recalls Derek Jarman’s Blue), is the best for Studio 180 since The Normal Heart. Time passes without punctuation as one scene infiltrates another. Nothing is rushed, nothing is really extravagant, yet everything falls into place with apparent ease. From the musical epilogue—The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”—to the conclusion, bruised by heartbreak, this production is something to savour as it essays “wild laughter in the throat of death.”