Gay people, who are faced with the heaviest share of the devastation caused by AIDS, who every week bury more brothers and mourn more lovers, are working overtime to keep their minds and hearts from breaking. More than ever gay audiences need plays that let them share, if not conquer, their mounting losses. They need plays that assure them that death is not a way of life, that they can dare to think of love in the future as well as the past, plays that channel anger into action, as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart does so powerfully.
What gay audiences do not need is the witless pabulum of Anthony Bruno’s Soul Survivor. This meretricious, brain-damaged play’s Hallmark-card bromides insult every gay man who’s lost a friend or lover.
The final installment of Bailiwick Repertory’s Gay & Lesbian Series (the earlier offerings were Robert Chesley’s Jerker and Holly Hughes’s The Well of Horniness), Soul Survivor was picked–hastily–as a replacement for Harvey Fierstein’s Forget Him because Bailiwick could not afford the rights to it.
But Bailiwick can afford even less to dumb down their stage and audiences to the level of Bruno’s bargain-basement theater. This is a play that throws together great chunks from Blithe Spirit, after surgically removing Noel Coward’s wit and charm. It then slaps them on top of A Christmas Carol, and finally grafts the mess onto more-honest treatments of the AIDS crisis like As Is and An Early Frost. The mutant result, as one character says in another context, is “metaphysical bullshit.”
Soul Survivor starts bland and ends preposterous. Mark is shy, pretty, 24, and newly arrived from North Carolina; Jerry is hunky, older, and from New Jersey (their origins are all that keep them from being totally generic). Mark and Jerry are enjoying a third date in Jerry’s apartment, and they begin to share some not-so-shocking secrets: Mark was hassled by a too-religious lover, Jerry so loves the smell and feel of leather that he orders the adoring Mark to strip him so he can put on his chaps and vest. The leather worship here is gratuitous and unconvincing, but the modeling is suitably salacious.
When Mark realizes that Jerry is reluctant to be fondled, Jerry reveals that he’s still getting over the loss of Brian, the lover he had for four years and lost to AIDS. Brian was a painter, leather go-go dancer, and all-around party monster who died at 30 (he gets little more depth than that). And, Jerry says, Brian made him laugh as no one has made him laugh since. Unless–the expectation is thrust at the audience like a bad check–somehow love can reenter Jerry’s life . . .
Having paid lip service to the past, the two men proceed to get it on. (Nothing like setting up a conflict and then neatly forgetting it so you can get to the steamy stuff.) In a misguided attempt to heighten the romantic aura, just as the foreplay is giving the lovers friction burns and the audience is eager for more, the most god-awful, suffocating stage fog erupts all over the theater. It’s almost as if the sex police had decided to tear-gas the crowd.
Improbably, Mark runs off so that Jerry can soliloquize (always a sure sign of desperate play writing) about how much he wishes Brian were still around. That’s no sooner said than–who’d have thought it?–the dead lover bursts from the wings and strikes a burlesque pose.
This horny mass of ectoplasm needs his Jerry like a fix. And to get him, Brian intends to push the usurping Mark out of the picture.
As this sultry spirit puts the make on his former lover, Jerry warns him: “I want to get on with it” (meaning either his life or sex with Mark or both). Of course when Mark returns he can’t see Brian, which allows Brian to play all kinds of infantile tricks on him, like setting his own portrait back up after Mark has turned it facedown on the table. Brian also likes to turn the stereo on and off, confusing the hell out of the timid Mark.
The laugh riot doesn’t stop here. When Jerry yells at Brian, Mark thinks he’s chewing him out. This tired old trick triggers guffaws from those in the audience who’ve never seen Topper or any of its progeny over the last 50 years. And most of the Topper imitators are incalculably better at this antediluvian device than Soul Survivor.
By the oh-so-neat ending, Brian has learned to let go of the living, admits that Mark is kind of cute, and heads back to a heaven that, as he describes it, seems to be one nonstop orgy in the sky. (Great image building, this, for the gay community.)
Indeed, it’s in its approach to death that Soul Survivor becomes a real tissue of lies. When Jerry screams at Brian, “Why did you leave me?” Bruno never thinks to have Brian say that, far from leaving, he was there to the bitter end–when he “left” against his will. (Blaming the nonsurvivor is always the scuzziest way out of dealing with survivor guilt.) When Jerry mentions AIDS, phantom Brian smugly says he’s over that: “I am perfect now.” It’s a strange and barren comfort to learn that the cure for AIDS is death, that a know-it-all ghost can come back and taunt the living with his “perfection.”
According to Bruno, there are two answers to the agony of AIDS. One is to lead your life as if you have a right to the future. But unfortunately, for Bruno this also requires massive wishful thinking. Just when we thought our lost lovers were dead, Bruno informs us that they are really out there in the astral turf, waiting for their literal second coming.
This supposed solace is either a ghastly, pathetic, cruel lie or a treacherously beguiling fantasy. After having visited too many dying friends at Bonaventure House and Illinois Masonic Hospital, I vote for the former. In either case, only a clever, adeptly playful playwright could pull it off; but despite his ghostly, nearly invisible stage humor, Bruno doesn’t even come close. Intentionally or not, he does manage to exploit the audience’s collective sorrow, but without offering a shred of enlightened consolation. It’s hard to say whether this is more sick or more sad, but once again, I vote for the former. Bruno has said, “I think it’s time to laugh,” a line that’s quoted in the program. But he hasn’t made us laugh. Worse yet, he hasn’t really looked at the subject he thinks laughter can remedy.
I don’t envy director Michael Ryczek his task: shaping believable characters from Bruno’s wretchedly false fantasies. There’s no question, however, that attractive actors, assorted frontal and dorsal nudity, and lots of silly energy help to distract from the drivel. Handsome and sincere performers, Anthony Martin and Darren Stephens play Mark and Jerry as if their romantic-comedy triteness had yet to be invented (no small feat with a script that’s a virtual anthology of B-movie tripe and porn-film dialogue). Michael A. Shepperd hurls his considerable talent into his very blithe spirit. But Jerry and Mark remain cardboard cuties, and Brian a cheap rip-off of better and more honest ghosts.
Until we have a cure for AIDS, we need a cure for plays like Soul Survivor.