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'Jerker': Love Story With Harsh Backdrop

September 18, 1996|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA MONICA — Age hasn't blunted the edgy impact of "Jerker," the fiercely homoerotic one-act by the late Robert Chesley that in 1986 provoked a push for more restrictive censorship. The touring revival from Call Box Productions, currently cruising Highways, boasts enough nudity and frank sexuality to hold its own against any play in a subsequent decade of envelope-pushing gay theater.

As a result, this chronicle of the anonymous telephone encounters between two homosexual men could easily be misread as a manifesto of gay lust--especially from the raw opening scenes that spawned the initial ruckus in an excerpted radio broadcast.

Yet for all its self-styled "brother-to-brother sweaty pig sex," at its core "Jerker" ironically turns out to be a rather sweetly sentimental love story set against the harrowing backdrop of the AIDS pandemic.

Fear of contagion impels Chesley's protagonists--San Francisco residents J.R. (Joe Gill) and Bert (David Organisak)--to confine their contacts to masturbatory phone calls, conducted by the performers from their respective bedroom sets on a split stage.

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Surprisingly prescient of the flesh-less, bloodless virtual exchanges of online erotic chat and commercial phone sex services, the dialogue between the two is initially flush with hedonistic indulgence unfettered by the constraints of honesty, identity or even the anatomically possible.

Their raunchiest calls are rendered with such hyperbolic frenzy they border on the comic. Yet despite the giddy, seemingly limitless freedom without accountability afforded by this impersonal gratification, the need for deeper connection begins to reassert itself in both men. As their conversations become less and less about sex and more about their real lives, J.R. and Bert genuinely grow to care for one another.

J.R.'s boundless youthful energy supplies a welcome tonic for the more world-weary Bert, helping the latter grieve his way through the protracted death of his lover. Though a bit rushed in his initial delivery, Organisak's Bert waxes eloquent in his passionate defenses of his former promiscuous lifestyle, asserting that love--not shallow partying--lies at its foundation.

Gill's J.R. nurses psychic wounds of his own, courtesy of Vietnam, yet he radiates an endearing unspoiled innocence. In a touching sequence, he confides an early sex fantasy so pure it could have sprung from the pages of a Harlequin Romance. Sadly, fairy tales are no match for harsh reality in the time of AIDS, and the love declaration that's too late--when there's no one there to hear it--reverberates with devastating force.

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Director Michael Kearns, the sole survivor from the play's original production company and himself HIV-positive, navigates the fragile nuances of star-crossed romance with a sensitivity born of firsthand tragedy and triumph.

Given the play's uncompromised explicitness, he's probably preaching to the choir--perhaps not the Mormon Tabernacle, but nonetheless a sizable one that still finds resonance in Chesley's voice, judging from the spellbound audience.

* "Jerker," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Sundays, 8:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 29. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hours, 20 minutes.

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