THE LIVING, Famous Door Theatre Company. With ten strong, meticulous actors reliving the bewildering horror of London’s great black plague, this production is as smart, entertaining, and compelling as I can imagine Anthony Clarvoe’s schematic term paper of a play to be.

But The Living is theater for people who want to be served a big, steaming plate of irrelevance with a side order of reassuring half-truths. In the play’s opening monologue, the statistician John Grant suggests that it doesn’t matter what happens onstage but only what happens in the audience, as “the play may be of use if this should ever happen again.” Since plague has happened again–though the similarities between the black death and AIDS are in reality few–the play’s usefulness must come in telling us what we already know: that most politicians are self-interested rather than civic-minded, that epidemics breed paranoia and victim-blaming, and that “just about anything can become a plague.”

But the real problem with The Living, as with Randy Shilts’s AIDS bible And the Band Played On, is the conservative insistence that the only real tragedies are personal tragedies, and that hope lies only in the dogged selflessness of a few heroic individuals. Once again, questions of collective responsibility and action are dismissed in favor of a neat novelization of catastrophe.

–Justin Hayford