"Beirut" is a high-concept one-act: a love story set against the backdrop of an unnamed plague.
Torch (Jason Patric) has tested positive for the disease and is quarantined in a grim cell on Manhattan's Lower East Side (now known as Beirut); his would-be lover Blue (Marisa Tomei) casts caution aside in order to share the rest of his life--and his death.
In an interview in Variety, co-producer Maggie Lear acknowledged that "we wanted to bring this piece out to Los Angeles because we feel it has a life beyond the stage, possibly in a film."
Giving it a life on the Los Angeles stage (at the Matrix) is apparently a lesser priority.
Writer Alan Bowne might say that he has simply stripped the story down to its basics. Blue sneaks in to see Torch and declares that she wants to stay. Torch resists her advances, saying he wants to protect her. After an hour of talk and skittish foreplay, they finally unite in a shared fate.
A guard enters the cell at one point, but we can't see him behind the glare of his flashlight. We do hear him, though; actor Pat Skipper has a wonderfully blood-curdling voice. More than anything else in the play, it's Skipper's voice, coming out of the darkness, that signifies the state to which the world has sunk.
The state of the outside world is important, if we're to understand Blue's single-minded determination to leave it in favor of this dim dungeon (designed by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio), lit by John Hastings).
A movie could graphically illustrate the exterior devastation. A play must employ more distilled imagery, but a bigger, more imaginative or stylized play would probably do it better than "Beirut." Here, we rely primarily on Blue's brief verbal descriptions. They're not enough.
There can be no complaints about the physicality of these performances, as directed by Jimmy Bohr. The sweat glistens, and the sexual temperature rises.
At the end, though, one wonders if that's all there is. The creators of "Beirut" say it's not really about the plague--and that it's definitely not about AIDS. It's about the two lovers and their tug of war on the issue of commitment. In other words, it's another play about relationships. Bowne tiptoes around the wider social issues that the time and place of his play would appear to raise. Or perhaps he's saving all that for the movie.
The producers might have remedied this by coupling "Beirut" with another one-act that grapples more forthrightly with AIDS or some other ominous social current; playgoers would certainly have received a fuller evening for their $17.50. As it is, "Beirut" is rather slim pickings.
Performances are at 7657 Melrose Ave., Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through Jan. 3. Tickets: $15-$17.50; (213) 852-1445.