City Lit Theater Company

You know the story: it begins with the hero learning that he has an incurable disease and will soon die. From there, it usually takes one of two directions. There’s the romantic approach, in which the hero is rescued from the brink of despair by the introduction of a companion willing to share his fate, their mutual affection ultimately overcoming the fearful specter of death. Or there’s the social approach, in which the hero comes to terms with long-dormant conflicts–predominantly his relationship with his father. Having resolved these, he can die with the peace of mind that comes with putting one’s earthly affairs in order.

Robert Ferro’s Second Son takes both approaches. Mark Valerian, its AIDS-stricken protagonist, is given not only a lover (who’s similarly afflicted) and a hope of survival through new medicines and old prayers, but several exorcising moments with his bigoted brother George, his postparturient niece Sarah, and of course his distant and self-absorbed father. By the end of the play, Mark’s entire family have reaffirmed their love and acceptance of him, agreeing unanimously to donate blood for his leukocyte-transplant therapy (though, as his unsentimental older sister Vita notes dryly, “This helps you, and it lets them off the hook”). With renewed optimism, Mark and his lover, Bill, vow to be together always.

Ferro contrasts this happily ever after with the situation of Mark’s longtime friend and correspondent, Matthew, who fends off fear with flippancy, only to fall in with a band of dubious interstellar pioneers bent on selling him a one-way ticket to a distant planet inhabited by wise extraterrestrial beings resembling–what else?–humanoid gay men. Ferro also makes morbid passing reference to various events of 1986, the year the play is set: the Challenger disaster, the Chernobyl holocaust, the Achille Lauro horror (1985), and, of course, AIDS.

On the stage all of this spans just under three hours, during most of which the characters speak either through letters or in the third person (“Mark moved into his mother’s room. He saw himself as the custodian of the house,” says Mark) but rarely interact directly. This is a long time to spend on a tale in which the most significant fact–the hero’s imminent demise–is revealed in the first speech, leaving its personae little to do except suffer bravely and gracefully. The almost exclusive use of the euphemistic term “the plague” to refer to AIDS, along with the selectively aesthetic symptoms (Mark and Bill speak of fatigue and skin discolorations, and the latter is hospitalized with pneumonia, but at no time do either of them cough, wheeze, drool, or sniffle), enables the author to treat the lovers’ scourge as an affliction that blights but does not wither.

Not that there is anything artistically wrong with this cosmeticized view of death; throughout the ages, artists have attempted to reconcile the disquieting inevitability of death with the double disorderliness of untimely death. Using it as a catalyst for true love or a basis for lasting familial harmony are two ways of denying death’s irksome wastefulness. There is certainly enough of that in our time to justify the panacean comfort of mysticism. (Second Son is not without its touches of levity: “The entire city of New York is career-crazed, since it’s too dangerous to fuck,” Matthew writes to Mark. “It’s like San Francisco without the hills.”)

Director Michael Salvador–who also adapted Ferro’s novel for the stage–has assembled a cast composed for the most part of skilled journeyman actors, most notably Larry Baldacci as the puckish Matthew, reciting the details of the patently bogus Splendora Space Project with such firm faith and conviction (“None of it can be proved. It is a leap of faith. The launch will cost $300,000 apiece–cash, of course”) that damn if we don’t actually start to believe in it, too. Fine, well-thought-out performances are also given by Kelly Nespor as the sardonic Vita (“They’re afraid of you, you know,” she tells Mark, “because you’re ill and you have nothing to lose”) and Ed Rifkin as the confused but well-meaning Valerian paterfamilias. The roles of Aunt Rose, younger sister Tessa, and next-generation Sarah, as written for this production, require little more of Sally Paulis, Franette Liebow, and Michele Gregory than to be unquestioningly warm and supportive–just as the roles of George and brother-in-law Neil require little more of Mark Richard and Mark Amenta than to be cool and detached to varying degrees–but all deliver intelligent, uncaricatured interpretations of their characters. Glenn Bugala infuses the idealized Bill with serene compassion and genial humor. Only the miscast Robert Kane, with his martyrlike posturing and W.C. Fields inflections, fails to make Mark a whole and vital human being. Surrounded by so many sharply focused performers, all speaking squarely and steadfastly from their respective characters’ individual truths, Mark frequently comes off sounding less noble than we expect a dying hero to be.

Even with its flaws, Second Son contains much of merit and quality. Adapting a work of literature for the stage is always an ambitious undertaking, and City Lit is to be commended for its courageous attempt.