Lifeline Theatre

“A story, a poem, should invent the language in which to tell itself,” Edward Parone writes in an introductory note to his stage adaptation of Susan Sontag’s short story “The Way We Live Now.” Parone could very well have added that a play too must find the language in which to tell itself.

And that’s doubly true for a play that adapts the words of another work. When a stage adaptation succeeds, it does so not because it reminds us, however vividly, of some favorite story, novel, or movie, but because the adapter found a way to transform the work, turning it from something text-bound into something that can have life only on the stage. You could even say that unless a stage adaptation makes us forget, however briefly, that it’s based on a work in another medium, it’s probably a failure. Shakespeare was adept at creating plays that eclipsed the works they were based on. So were Rodgers and Hammerstein.

But Edward Parone is not, judging by his adaptation, also called The Way We Live Now. This word-heavy, sometimes soporific one-act–one of two in Lifeline Theatre’s “Shouts and Whispers”–never allows us to forget that behind it stands Susan Sontag. But what you’d never glean from Parone’s muffed effort is what an extraordinary and moving short story “The Way We Live Now” is. Originally published in the New Yorker in November of 1987, and later anthologized in The Best Short Stories of 1987, Sontag’s story reports from the point of view of an unnamed third-person narrator the various quips, opinions, and fears of a group of 26 friends and acquaintances (“one for every letter of the alphabet”), all of them desperately concerned with a mutual unnamed friend suffering from AIDS.

The story, which ran ten pages in the New Yorker, is absolutely hypnotic, in part because Sontag captures perfectly the obsessive information mongering that is characteristic of a group when one of its members becomes terminally ill, and in part because beneath Sontag’s brilliant surfeit of words runs an urgent undercurrent of barely concealed pain so powerful we cannot help but feel the presence of the unnamed narrator whose vision unifies the story.

This subtle narrative unity is the quality missing from Parone’s adaptation. By dividing the story among five actors, Parone only diminishes its power without making it any more stageworthy. Instead of conserving Sontag’s single narrative voice, or creating a work in which all 26 of her characters speak directly to the audience, he gives us an unholy compromise: five “voices,” who sort of play the 26 friends in the story and sort of maintain a Sontag-esque distance.

A single actor alone onstage reading Sontag’s words (a la WBEZ’s “Selected Shorts”) would have been five times more moving than what Parone serves up. Sadder still is that this one-act sinks through no fault of director Gregg Mierow or his cast of five terrific actors. They do as much as they can to overcome the adaptation’s fundamental problems, and for the first two-thirds of the piece nearly succeed in keeping it moving. Ultimately, however, it’s too long, too wordy, and too emotionally cool to sustain our interest for a full act.

The second half of the evening, Talking AIDS to Death, is an absolute joy to watch. Based on an essay by Randy Shilts that was first published in Esquire and later anthologized in the 1990 edition of Best American Essays, this adaptation by James Sie does everything Parone’s does not. Sie maintains the essay’s single unifying voice, transforming the work into a one-man one-act that easily moves from lecture to dramatic monologue and back again.

At one moment Shilts (played superbly by Steve Totland) addresses the audience directly, recounting his experiences promoting his book And the Band Played On: “I am an AIDS talk-show jukebox,” he explains. “All the talk-show hosts like my answers because they’re short, punchy, and to the point.” The next moment Shilts takes a seat behind a microphone and shows us what it’s like to field infuriatingly ignorant questions about AIDS. (“What if [a] gay waiter took my salad back into the kitchen and ejaculated into my salad dressing?” ran one of the more amazing questions. “Could I get AIDS then?”)

Sie (who adapted Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Lifeline last fall) remains true throughout to the spirit of Shilts’s marvelous, rich essay, including not only his humorous stories about being a media celebrity but also his righteous anger at the celebrity-mad national news media, which was far more interested in finding out who was going to play Shilts on the TV miniseries based on his book than in investigating the fact that the Reagan administration continued to hold up AIDS research by understaffing the NIH. Yet Sie’s adaptation is very much a work in its own right, as perfectly suited to the stage as Shilts’s original essay was to the page.

Of course, Sie does not deserve all the credit for the success of Talking AIDS to Death. Steve Scott must share the praise, for his seamless and transparent direction. As must Totland for his likable, energetic, and absolutely on-the-mark portrayal of Shilts. Totland appears equally at ease playing the talk-show wit, the angry investigative reporter, and the sad witness to friend Kit Herman’s death from AIDS. I would have enjoyed Talking AIDS to Death as much if it had been twice as long.