Bailiwick Repertory

“It’s so trite. There’s no conflict.”

“Oh, thats Just because you don’t know how to masturbate.” –overheard at the intermission of Jerker

I couldn’t believe I’d been assigned this play. I had no desire to watch two naked men jerking off onstage–my understanding of what this play was about. You can pay 50 cents at a peep show for that. But although Robert Chesley’s Jerker does indeed center around two naked men whacking off while exchanging fantasies on the phone (well, to tell the truth only one bares all), it is finally a funny, thoughtful, tender story that emerges from Bailiwick’s well-crafted production.

Jerker, the first play in Bailiwick’s gay and lesbian late-night series, is subtitled “a pornographic elegy with redeeming social value and a hymn to the queer men of San Francisco in 20 phone calls, many of them dirty.” That really says it in a nutshell. The play begins with one man making an anonymous dirty phone call to another. They both get off. Blackout. Thus begins a sweet, semianonymous romance conducted strictly by telephone. Although they never meet, Bert and J.R. eventually get well enough acquainted for each to begin to care about and need the other. In the process, various social themes get tossed about–predictably, AIDS and its effect on the gay community, but also homosexuality in general, the concept of free love, and the way values shifted between the 70s and 80s. The play provides no profound revelations on any of these topics. Nevertheless, what homosexuality has come to mean because of AIDS is a subject seldom aired onstage these days, and there is power in simply saying the words and hearing them said.

Mostly, though, Jerker is an 80s love story, a testament to the loneliness of these times and the little things people do to get by. The strongest moment in the play is when J.R. tells the bedridden Bert a childhood fantasy. Although extraordinarily sensual, it is one of the few phone calls that has nothing to do with sex. Bert lies in bed with his stuffed teddy bear, beset by all the fears that a lingering cold can bring today, and he’s as spellbound as the audience by J.R.’s parable of two princes and their adventures in an enchanted forest.

But the most wonderful thing about Jerker is its sense of humor. Some performance artists have been known to do appalling things to their genitalia for no apparent artistic reason, but this playwright is not out simply to shock. And because Chesley peppers his scenes with gentle wit and good-natured joking, he eases our potential embarrassment at the play’s action.

Director Christopher Moore pulls out of the play all the warmth and humor that Chesley put into it. He has made a cohesive, surprisingly tasteful piece from difficult and slightly fragmented material. Sound designer Michael Randolph helps to tie the scenes together even when the playwright hasn’t: the music that comes up between phone calls invariably sets the mood for the next scene.

Moore has also gotten beautiful work out of his two actors, Ric Roe and Darren Stephens. Stephens has a boyish charm as the macho, gruff-talking Bert. His sweet, almost delicate manner sets off Bert’s mild sadomasochism and the actor’s own muscular presence. This balance works particularly well when he tells the story of his most memorable fuck, giving this crude but lovely chance encounter on the streets of San Francisco all the richness it deserves. Stephens’s sweetness in the scene when Bert is sick–he chooses to treat his illness as an ordinary cold–means his character seems free of any self-pity or overwhelming fear. (It also means the audience must guess where the play will go.) Stephens is ingenuous and natural, with or without clothes.

Ric Roe plays J.R., the initiator of the relationship, with intelligence and acumen. Although in the couple’s fantasies J.R. takes the part of the little brother, of the two men he seems the wiser. Roe’s J.R. is complex, combining an almost arrogant sureness with a palpable underlying loneliness.