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Terrifyingly disturbing Beirut deserves to be seen


Written by Alan Bowne.

Directed by Janet Sonenberg.

Starring Arthur H. Roberts '92, Charlene M. Suwanabhand '93, and Daniel N. Zentner '92.

Kresge Little Theater.

April 22-24, 29, May 1 at 8 p.m.

By Brian Rosenberg

Contributing Editor

Let's just get this out of the way: Yes, someone is naked for part of this play. Nude. Naked as a jaybird. In his birthday suit. Whatever you want to call it.

Phew. Now we can move on to the important stuff. On the whole, Beirut is not entertaining -- it's terrifying. There are funny moments and wonderfully tense moments, but the overall effect is one of dread at the proximity of our own world to that of the play.

In that world, Beirut is in New York City, not Lebanon. The residents have all tested positive for a viral disease that remains nameless but bears a haunting similarity to AIDS: It's transmitted through bodily fluids, is highly infectious, and attacks the immune system. Symptoms include lesions and severe weight loss. People who test positive may not show symptoms for weeks or years, or they may only be carriers and never get sick.

Torch (Arthur H. Roberts '92) recently tested positive, so he got a "P" tattooed on his left buttock and was carted off to Beirut to live, and mostly to die, with the other Ps. He sits in his one-room (okay, there's a bathroom too) apartment eating the cold canned food the government gives him and reading about his disease by candlelight -- heat and electricity are severely rationed for Ps. He's not showing any lesions, but that doesn't keep him or his lesion inspector (Daniel N. Zentner '92) from checking.

Torch's sort-of girlfriend Blue (Charlene M. Suwanabhand '93) is in love with him and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. Problem is, she's negative, and negatives found in Beirut are killed. So she buys an imitation P tattoo on the black market and sneaks into Beirut to see him, and for the next hour or so they struggle to decide the shape of their futures.

Sexual tension dominates Beirut. Blue wants Torch to take her, and take her out of the negative world, where there are no movies, no bars, and cameras are everywhere, monitoring compliance with the laws forbidding sex. (Test-tube babies are humanity's only reproductive hope.) Torch would gladly take her were it not for the fact that he'd also probably be killing her.

Roberts and Suwanabhand are spectacular together. Whether she's crawling across the bed or giving Roberts a massage, Suwanabhand moves with a feline grace and intensity that underscores her stalking of him. Roberts responds to her touch with just the right blend of indulgence and reluctance. When he inevitably realizes that every touch could be killing her, the jerky suddenness of his retreats preserves their spontaneity. Though their interaction becomes extremely intimate (each fondles the other's crotch; she licks his behind), there is never a break or a hesitation in the action. On the contrary, the pair bring a riveting energy to the sexual exchanges. One dry-humping scene near the play's midpoint is particularly intense. Perhaps the only flaw in the sexual presentation comes in the handling of the play's hints of sadomasochism, an admittedly difficult element which nonetheless seems to have been glossed over.

The play's treatment of death is also superb. Roberts spits lines into Suwanabhand's face about how every drop of him is "crawling with cockroaches that will shit in your blood slowly, for months" with a delicious venom. Torch's circumstances have inured him to death in general, however, and he appropriately displays this anger only when death confronts him directly; Blue's report of six negatives hung from a lamppost for entering Beirut elicits only a casual, "That's unsanitary." Torch's and Blue's morbid and uncomprehending fascination with the development of the disease also rings true.

Though a few lines fall flat, the responsibility seems to lie more with Bowne than the actors. The most prominent example comes when Torch and Blue discuss pornographic movies. He suggests that she satisfy her sexual needs by watching them instead of having sex with him, but she proposes that they masturbate in front of one another. "You're not in any of them... We could be VCRs for each other," she says. Later, Torch tries to convince Blue to leave Beirut by reminding her about all the things he can no longer have. "I miss pizza," he says. Soon after, she replies with "You can't live without love," a line which may be impossible to cleanse of camp. These failings are by far the exception, however, and the play survives them virtually unscathed.

Beirut also succeeds technically. Haphazardly organized canned food, scattered papers, and a girlie calendar on the wall help transform the Kresge Little Theater into a squalid hole. An eerie green light blinks on and off through a high window to meet the orange glow of lamps at the sides, and strange synthesizer music completes the otherworldly effect. The rapid strobing of the green light that accompanies a discussion of rock clubs is an annoying distraction, however.

Despite a few lapses, Beirut is a powerful and stunning play that will both disturb and attract you. It deserves to be seen, even if you only go because you can't believe people would do that on stage.