at Bailiwick Repertory

It’s impossible to fault the good intentions that fuel Unfinished Business: The AIDS Show. The cast and production team are working for free; the entire budget has been underwritten by donations from various foundations and individuals; and all box-office proceeds are going to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, a worthy cause. Equally worthy is the show’s intended message, which is that people should respond to the AIDS crisis with responsible caution while rejecting anxiety, paranoia, guilt, and the tendency to blame the victim. A collection of songs and skits by 14 writers, Unfinished Business seeks to make the audience share the emotions of persons with AIDS and their loved ones, to transmit information about the disease, and to promote the pleasures and practicality of “safe sex”–a purpose reinforced by the inclusion of a free condom in each program book.

Nor can I take exception to the quality of the show’s current production at Bailiwick Repertory–its first staging, apparently, by a company other than San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, which premiered the work in 1984 (making it one of the earliest efforts to put the AIDS experience on a stage) and ran it on and off for a year and a half. Codirectors Arnold Aprill and Sheila Wurmser have fused a mixed cast of students, semiprofessionals, and professionals into an even, cohesive, and expressive ensemble; and the clean, spare visual design–Patrick Fitzpatrick’s white deco set, Robert Van Tornhout’s brightly colored lights, and Caroline Kera’s nicely matched pastel costumes–is remarkably varied and well suited to the show’s simplicity and straightforwardness.

But in its effort to confront death and denial in a revue format that has something for everyone–a little sorrow, a little laughter, a little sex, a little love–Unfinished Business succumbs to the risk inherent in its rather bold strategy: it trivializes the crisis in both its personal and its broad social dimensions. Trying to fit this largest of themes–mortality–into the framework of short “bits” leads the authors into the trap of resorting to easy sensationalism for quick laughs or knee-jerk pathos; some moments in the evening are strong, too many are either bathetic, coarse, or gratingly frivolous.

It is this last quality in particular that plagues Unfinished Business. In trying to prompt the audience’s amusement, the authors rely heavily on camp humor of the most obvious sort, reducing most of the male characters to preening, screaming queens. The combination of the relentless shrillness with the inevitable emphasis on sex conveys the unfortunate impression of AIDS as the problem of a group of guys who can only think with their cocks. The show’s depiction of gay men as capering madly from one trick to the next until reluctantly forced to change their habits by fear of death is unpleasantly reminiscent of the lesbian writer Mary Renault’s description, in her 1952 novel The Charioteer, of a “queer party” as a cross between a lonely hearts club and an amateur brothel. For a show rooted very specifically in the San Francisco gay experience, there is a notable absence of references to politics, religion, culture, or any of the other factors that help bind the gay and lesbian community together. The gay men in Unfinished Business are basically defined by their sex lives (“lust, lies, and attitude,” in the words of one fellow); some turn to monogamy, some to phone sex, some to circle-jerking with their friends, some to celibacy, but none of them seems to be having a particularly happy time of it either before or after awareness of the health crisis sets in. The women, meanwhile, are most memorably seen in terms of their relationships to men–a mother who rages at the unfairness of her gentle gay son’s dying while macho fag-bashers get away with murder, a pregnant woman telling her AIDS-afflicted brother that at her husband’s insistence she can no longer see him.

The energy and commitment of the actors help to offset the script’s worst tendencies. Particularly strong impressions are registered by Michael Irpino as an ex-hustler eulogizing his feisty dead friend (“That girl could be Cruella de Ville sometimes!”), Martin Arons as an eccentric old queen taking delight in freaking out a young gay yuppie, Michael Salvador and Stephen Forsling as an edgy acid-tongued AIDS patient and his volunteer “buddy” (in one of the few scenes where men talk about something besides sex, drugs, or clothes), Michael Kaplan and Thomas J. Kelly as two longtime friends torn apart by one’s guilt when the other gets sick, Sara Minton as the aforementioned angry mother and as a 30s-style musical comedy singer, and Matt McDonald as a smug southern congressman on a To Tell the Truth celebrity panel quizzing three contestants as to which is the real person with AIDS. (“My time is running out,” says a panelist. “Likewise,” responds a contestant.) This skit, by Robert Julian, is by far the toughest and most provocatively funny piece in the show; it comes the closest to suggesting the diversity of the disease’s impact and to addressing the broad range of factors that make AIDS not only a lethal disease and an intrusion on people’s sexual freedom but a looming social and political issue of gigantic proportions. There is value in offering entertaining advice on nonrisky sex practices (though “Rimming at the Baths,” a song-and-dance number featuring a chorus of towel-clad hunks, sends a certain double message in this regard), and there is value in promoting a positive image of AIDS as a challenge to live rather than a death sentence; but in ignoring the bigger implications of the crisis, Unfinished Business is stuck in the same denial syndrome it criticizes.