BREAKING THE CODE
Artists have always helped us see our world anew; we need such vision now more than ever. Fortunately some of our most perceptive and ingenious social critics–Douglas Crimp, Paula Treichler, and Simon Watney, to name but a few–continue to reframe the AIDS crisis, reimagining our contemporary world partly through their insights into history, showing how ideas of contagion, sexuality, immorality, and criminality have been intertwined in Western culture. Anthony Clarvoe, whose historical drama The Living is subtitled “a parable for our times,” enters this company like a toddler entering a marathon. He simply cannot keep pace.
The Living draws upon firsthand accounts of London’s 1665 outbreak of the plague, as well as upon Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But the plague offers only a tenuous parallel to AIDS. Bubonic plague was spread by infected rodents and their infected fleas–although 17th-century scientists believed it was spread through the air, by poisonous vapors–and was therefore almost uncontrollably contagious. So the draconian measures taken in the name of public health are frightening but understandable: during the Roman outbreak of plague nine years earlier, those people who violated quarantine were executed by firing squad, hung from public gallows, or in some cases literally torn apart. But AIDS is infectious rather than contagious, so calls for curtailing the civil rights of those infected are completely insupportable.
Clarvoe uses the London plague to encourage his audience to examine the ways our society has responded to AIDS, but The Living offers the standard stuff of contemporary AIDS reporting: government inaction and cowardice, gross opportunism and corruption, selfless acts of heroism, and an increasing need for spiritual reassurance as the death toll continues to rise. The Living says all the right things but ends up feeling inert. The points it makes about the human penchant for paranoia, intolerance, and scapegoating in the face of epidemic are certainly valid, but they’ve been made many times over with greater clarity and urgency by writers whose perspectives are more far-reaching than Clarvoe’s.
To make matters worse, Clarvoe takes familiar social commentary and fashions it into a lumbering, unwieldy play. As a piece of historical fiction, The Living is uneven at best. Clarvoe does create a handful of strong, resonant images: the church bells toll so often, for example, that people are never sure what time it is. But more often he props up his drama with stock characters–the fiery minister whose faith is challenged, the disillusioned public official, the tireless physician. These are precisely the characters that Camus evoked in his masterpiece The Plague, but Camus created from these archetypal figures a sweeping human tragedy, while Clarvoe’s play feels musty and tired.
The Living gets gloomier and gloomier during its two-hour span, but rarely ventures beyond the territory staked out in the first act. When Lord Brounker shows up near the end, as foppishly indifferent to the mayor’s pleas as he was in the second scene, the point has been driven six feet underground.
Even the most repellent social drama can achieve a certain success in the hands of sensitive, well-directed actors, as Elmore Pond Players’ recent production of Lee Blessing’s wholly unpleasant Patient A demonstrated. But unfortunately Interplay’s cast, under David Perkovich’s heavy-handed direction, seems to mistake hyperventilation for acting. Nearly everything in this production is big and breathy. Wide eyes and trembling hands abound. As a result, there’s hardly a real emotion anywhere. The acting is especially troubling considering that the situation these characters face, helplessly watching their ranks thin, recalls the toll AIDS has taken. Why these actors feel the need to travel so far outside themselves to find these characters is beyond me.
“The Living is Interplay’s AIDS play–one with a difference,” the press release states, implying that every theater is obliged to do one and that every AIDS production by definition makes a meaningful contribution. Interplay suggests that the strength of this play lies in the fact that it removes from the discussion of AIDS “all the sexual-moral ramifications that seem to obsess the United States in the 20th Century.” (Yes, why bother with those?) In order to avoid appearing as though its head were completely buried in sand, Interplay concludes, “Of course, fear engendered prejudice in the 17th Century too; but the blame was not so readily targeted, the “answers’ were not so easy.” If Interplay believes that we live in a time of easy answers, and that the “difference” its work offers is an unwillingness to confront a complex reality in its entirety, perhaps the company should reexamine its reasons for making theater in the first place.
In the program for Breaking the Code, running in repertory with The Living, Interplay states that a repertory schedule “enriches the theatre experience for both the actors and the audience.” Well, what enrich the theater experience for me are good plays and solid productions, and Breaking the Code is neither. Hugh Whitemore tells the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who developed the forerunner of modern computer technology and broke the Nazis’ Enigma code during World War II. Unfortunately, Whitemore created only one character–Turing himself–and surrounded him with cardboard cutouts and pure functionaries whose purpose is to allow Turing to launch into one monologue after another.
Turing is a fascinating figure, but it would take virtuoso performances and a strong directorial hand to turn this play into an engaging evening of theater. Perkovich doubles as lead actor and director, and while his performance is quite strong–he makes Turing a vibrantly contradictory character of the sort always welcome onstage–he seems to have left the rest of the production virtually unattended. The pacing is sluggish, and the actors mostly either remain rooted to one spot or pace back and forth for no discernible reason. Saddled with a collection of unsuccessful British accents that make nearly every supporting character stilted, this Breaking the Code feels even creakier than the one that inexplicably ran for ten months at Interplay four years ago.