Harvey Fierstein, before he branched out into writing books for straight musicals, was a kind of theatrical barometer of gay life. His concerns as a dramatist were our concerns. In ‘Torch Song Trilogy’, it was all coming out and gay identity; in ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ it was gay marriage. Here it is aspects of the virus which did so much to shape our consciousness in the 1980s.
The play treads a fine tightrope in telling uncomfortable truths through laughs.
This double bill might be described as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. ‘Safe Sex’ is a comedy of frustration. When HIV first appeared, so little was known about it that it took a while to work out that it was transferred through body fluids. There were only guestimates about what was risky, and how risky ‘risky’ actually was. Safe sex advice tended to err on the side of caution. Better safe than sorry. At the same time, there was a deep reluctance among gay men to embrace a condom culture. Though the gay press tried to jolly us along with cheery articles about how much fun sex with rubbers could be, it was whistling in the dark. We all felt sex was never going to be as good, as free, again.
‘Safe Sex’ was very much of that time, a cry of frustration. Ghee (CJ de Mooi) is obsessed with what is or is not safe. His partner Mead (Cole Michaels) cannot touch him without his running to a little pamphlet to check what is or is not OK to do. There is a back story – they were in a relationship for five years, split for two, and have now been back together for all of a week. Already Mead is thinking of leaving. Fierstein’s serio-comic point is that HIV/AIDS doesn’t actually change emotional relationships, merely brings certain aspects to the fore. Ghee was always emotionally distant and evasive. Safe sex has merely given him another shield, another excuse to avoid intimacy.
So far so good; however, the play treads a fine tightrope in telling uncomfortable truths through laughs. And this simply isn’t funny enough. Maybe it’s the Anglicisation, and the loss of New York comic rhythms; maybe it’s a lack of engagement between de Mooi and Michaels. The balance comes down heavily on the side of exposition and in the process Fierstein’s weaknesses are the more apparent. He simply cannot stop talking. Everything has to be stated, there is no subtext, no room for dramatic irony. Always, always the characters have to say what they’re feeling. It’s all rather wearing. Don’t tell me, Mr Fierstein, show me.
At one point in ‘Safe Sex’, a character goes on about how he missed the other so much he used to sniff his clothes. At the start of ‘On Tidy Endings’ another character simply does it. Sniff. Gently, subtly and so economically. How much more emotionally telling. ‘On Tidy Endings’ is a later play and more skilled in many ways. It’s a kind of battle for validity – validity of relationship, validity of feeling – between Marion, (Deena Payne) Collin’s ex-wife who had sixteen years of marriage before her husband left her for another man, and Arthur (CJ de Mooi), the man he left her for. Arthur has nursed Collin through the last painful years of his life, and inherited his effects. Marion comes in search of personal effects to remember him by, and for the business of selling the house – the details of the practical arrangements don’t bear too close examination, and there’s some un-worked-out dramatic business about an insurance policy.
What remains is the relationship between two people damaged by pain who need to journey from claiming the ‘real’ relationship with the dead man to an acknowledgement of each other’s loss. This is complicated by the fact that Arthur’s relationship with Collin is denied by society at large, and part of Collin’s family in particular. Again the characters suffer from Fierstein’s habitual over-articulacy, but more occasionally. Payne and de Mooi suffer from the same lack of connection as there was in ‘Safe Sex’, Payne in particular coming across as ‘actorish’; but here it seems more appropriate to the subject matter.
And there is one astonishing speech from Arthur, deeply felt by both Fierstein and de Mooi, about the process of taking care of someone who is dying. Significantly this is delivered direct to audience, suggesting perhaps that de Mooi’s strength is really as a monologist. He moves us profoundly, reminding us, at a time when we have maybe become rather blasé about gay relationships and the pesky virus, of the devastating pain of thirty years ago, when half a gay generation was wiped out and the other left permanently scarred.