SAN DIEGO — In the Tony Award-winning "Torch Song Trilogy," playwright Harvey Fierstein created the memorable character of Arnold Beckoff, a passionate, funny gay man searching for true love in a faithless world.
First mounted on Broadway in 1982, "Torch Song Trilogy" was a pre-AIDS drama, and it worked on those terms: Arnold's quest for monogamy was one born of desire rather than fear.
Times, however, have changed, and so have Fierstein's subjects. In his newest trilogy, "Safe Sex," which premiered on Broadway last March and is now having its West Coast premiere at the Bowery Theatre through March 20, Fierstein's characters cannot make a move without considering the specter of AIDS.
But for those who fear that an evening of "Safe Sex" means an evening of lecture, not to worry. Fierstein is too complex and rich a writer to write the way the crow flies.
In fact, for his characters, the idea of "safe sex" is a double-edged sword: it's necessary in the days of AIDS, but it goes against the grain of the generous give-and-take that is part and parcel of the boundless nature of love. And, as his characters point out, concerns about safety can also be used as an excuse to stave off intimacy.
Still, while "Safe Sex" is an important play, it is also a much harder one to pull off than Fierstein's earlier hit. While "Torch Song Trilogy" was originally produced as three separate one-acts, Fierstein used the same characters in all three, and when he strung the parts together they gleamed as a single, iridescent whole.
"Safe Sex," while similarly conceived in three one-act segments, maintains separate characters despite the similarity of the stories in each chapter. In addition, the Bowery has chosen to go with separate casts for each act, a move that undermines the audience's ability to grow emotionally with the characters over the course of the evening.
One expects more from the Bowery, which has in the past produced some of the most provocative theater in town. But one must remember, too, that the theater took a gamble and went on with this show after only three weeks of preparation. More of this work's potential may emerge further down in the performance schedule, but for now the lack of rehearsal shows in a measure of stiffness in the first one-act and awkwardness and flubbed lines in the third.
The second segment, however, is worth the price of admission, thanks to the acting skills of Derek Harrison Hurd and Nicholas Washburn.
Masterfully directed by Tavis Ross, this act features two recently reconciled--or nearly reconciled--lovers on a literal teeter-totter. It begins electrically when the actors, lying at either end of the seesaw, simulate the sounds of sex without touching. The dynamic between them never loses that initial sizzle, even as the controlling Ghee (played with exquisite precision by Hurd) battles with Mead (rendered with sleepy-eyed sensuality by Washburn) over whether Ghee is really trying to protect himself from sex that could lead to AIDS, or sex that could lead to love.
Meanwhile the seesaw dips and tips.
In the first act, Ross is less successful at coaxing a similar level of urgency from the otherwise appealing performances of Jeff Okey and Mark Robertson as men who meet in a bar but, because of AIDS, are afraid to act on their mutual attraction.
The biggest disappointment, however, is the skillfully written third vignette in which John Ara Martin plays the ex-lover of a dead AIDS victim who confronts Rhona Gold, his lover's former wife. There are flashes of fire here, as when Martin pleads his case as being a truer widow to the dead man than the man's ex-wife and Gold quietly listens. Through too much of the piece, however, they are not in synchronization with each other.
The sets by Tom Phelps are bare bones, but effective and nicely lit by him: a U-shaped bench for the two men in the bar, the teeter-totter for the lovers, a living room cluttered with cartons for the third act. John-Bryan Davis' costumes hit the mark with his usual subtly detailed use of color. Lawrence Czoka's sound enhances the wistful mood.
These details and others, sparked with a generous pinch of potential, add up to enough good ingredients to make a tasty and nourishing meal. But this production needs more cooking.
By Harvey Fierstein. Director is Tavis Ross. Set and lighting by Tom Phelps. Music and sound by Lawrence Czoka. Costumes by John-Bryan Davis. Stage manager is Elizabeth Walter. With Mark Robertson, Jeff Okey, Derek Harrison Hurd, Nicholas Washburn, Tyson Seely, Rhona Gold, Bonnie Frechette and John Ara Martin. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Sundays at 7 through March 20. At the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St., San Diego.