Bailiwick Repertory

Desperation creates “cures” that medicine cannot, and so the lack of a cure for AIDS has triggered a frenzy of panacea peddling. The panic makes a kind of cruel sense; you don’t ask a dying 20-year-old to be patient while research labs take their time testing treatments that may only prolong the dying.

In Adam and the Experts Victor Bumbalo takes a hard look at this vicious waiting game–how it hits people with AIDS and those who love them, how it makes them rely on the wrong people for help, and how finally PWAs and their caregivers must help themselves.

Yes, this play is about AIDS. but it would be cheap to dismiss it as yet another AIDS play, for it compassionately depicts a denial of death we all understand.

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross cites denial as the great obstacle to a peaceful death, and you get lots of denial in Adam and the Experts–of death and of sex. Bumbalo’s title character is a gay an who’s so torn apart by the weekly funerals he attends that he has come to see sex as an early form of death. Worse, Adam faces the imminent loss of his 30-year-old best friend Eddie. Adam is frantic to do whatever it takes to save Eddie–and thus postpone confronting his own mortality and survivor guilt.

To show this, Bumbalo seems to have broken Adam and the Experts into two plot lines. The first story powerfully chronicles Adam’s struggle to overcome his denial so he can care for Eddie without burning out. Bumbalo suggests that denial by introducing a character, the “Man,” to represent Adam’s repressed libido, specifically his fear of doing anything that will make him feel too much. Yet the Man does allow Adam to do things his mind resists, such as simply holding and kissing Eddie.

The play’s other story charts Adam’s growing refusal to rely on the easy answers and quick fixes offered by five “experts,” who make up an unofficial support group that provides nothing of the kind. Here Bumbalo departs from the play’s realism to offer satirically stylized portraits of various preying quack.

At times crudely or kindly depicted, these “experts” practice their own elaborate forms of denial. A guru offers a meditation therapy that asks believers to despise earthly life; in an ugly moment the guru even tries to blame Eddie for “choosing” his illness. (This skit neatly mocks the “blame the victim” approach of Louise Hays, a self-proclaimed healer who believes we’re responsible for choosing everything that happens to us, even our parents and our deaths.) The others are a crazed, self-promoting doctor who concocts a surefire AIDS cure–ozone injections; a psychiatrist who advocates making money as a way to stop thinking about AIDS; a horny closeted priest more obsessed with checking his body for AIDS symptoms and hating God for producing this pestilence than in ministering to others; an AIDS “buddy” who gets hysterical over Eddie’s torment and who clearly needs a buddy himself (ironically, Eddie becomes that); and Adam’s parents, who’d rather distract themselves with a jigsaw puzzle than deal with Adam’s homosexuality and their fears for his health.

As the play eliminates these “experts,” we’re left with the play’s big truth: the one thing that makes someone an AIDS expert is a willingness to take risks to show love; everything else is just faking it. And the only real experts here are Adam and Eddie.

Eddie has two other friends, a straight woman and a young gay man who represent familiar responses to tragedies like Eddie’s. The woman is staunch throughout, even agreeing to marry Eddie to provide him with insurance coverage; the young man is scared that what’s happening to Eddie may soon hit him–more denial.

Eddie himself almost gets lost in the reactions to his plight. Bumbalo could have shown us a generic Eddie from an all-too-common tragedy; instead he particularizes the pain, lesions and all. Eddie’s fears exactly measure how much he loves life. Now he’s about to lose his life because he loved someone too much, and it makes no sense. Neither does the cure mongering that Adam inflicts on him. “What does it mean not to be here?” he wonders. Like all of us, he doesn’t want to find out.

Like most works written in extremities and intended to encourage, Adam and the Experts is a play about surviving; we identify with Adam, not Eddie. By both letting go of Eddie and remembering him, Adam frees himself to believe in a future and in love. Yet it’s ironic that the script reduces Eddie to a supporting role in his own death. Moreover, the vignettes that satirize the “experts” tend to dilute Adam’s story and digress from Eddie’s sufferings. The episodic framework doesn’t harm Bumbalo’s fast-moving and deftly written script, but it makes you suspect that Bumbalo heeded bad advice from some theater “experts” and tried to cover too much.

Well-staged by Michael Ryczek, this midwest premiere follows Jerker (which closes June 30) as the second offering in Bailiwick Repertory’s summer-long gay and lesbian theater series. It’s clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and that communal conviction excuses an unevenness in performances that reflect the plays erratic mood shifts.

Michael Barto captures both Adam’s edgy anger and his compulsion to take out on others his unacknowledged fears. It’s a role that can cut Adam off from everyone around him; fortunately Barto fights the urge to play it alone, particularly in Adam’s scenes with Eddie. Ron Wells drives home Eddie’s very rational panic but he could work harder to contrast his growing anger with the depletion that gradually consumes him.

Patricia Kane and Mark Amenta handle the experts with abandon and dexterity; Amenta is especially poignant as the AIDS buddy who needs all the help he can’t give. Richard Beech plays Eddie’s fantasy Man with a studly presence, but he’s too bland in the closing eulogy for Eddie. Modest Eddie might have wanted it that way, but we don’t.