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THEATER | THEATER REVIEW

Frozen in Time

Play about AIDS dramatizes earlier period's lack of hope.

June 11, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amazing how quickly a play can become a period piece.

Take Victor Bumbalo's "Adam and the Experts," having its Los Angeles premiere at the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts. When first produced off-Broadway in 1989, it was one of a handful of provocative plays dealing with the AIDS crisis among gay men, Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" being, perhaps, the best known.

Only nine years later, "Adam and the Experts" feels like a piece frozen in time. Bumbalo rightly points out in a program note, "Contrary to popular belief, the AIDS crisis is not over." Yet the period that his play documents--the avalanche of grief combined with a complete lack of hope--seems largely to have passed.

That's not to say that the play isn't worth revisiting, in part as an exercise in comparison: how much has changed, how much hasn't.

The story centers on the period between AIDS diagnosis and death for Eddie (Mark Atienza), through the eyes of his best friend Adam (Les Williams). As Eddie's health progressively declines, Adam seeks help from a series of "experts"--priests, quacks and self-proclaimed gurus--in a tragicomic quest for a miracle.

Adam, of course, wants a miracle for himself as much as for his friend. He's not sick, though terrified he will be. He hasn't had sex in three years in an attempt to keep himself safe. So as Eddie progresses through a fairly predictable course of grief, Adam is stuck in a bargaining mode. Yet this suppression--which is in part about sex, in part about any kind of intimacy--is driving him insane.

A fantasy figure, The Man (Trey Alexander), haunts Adam and provides the play's funniest--and most graphic--moments. Alexander struts about in his skivvies trying to remind Adam what desire was like, how it made him human. While so much else about the characters' reaction to AIDS now seems familiar, Adam's struggle against reconciliation with The Man is a device that maintains freshness.

Adam, unfortunately, is never quite as interesting as his subconscious Man. Williams goes for the nice-guy routine with lots of awkward smiles. But his performance never wholly embodies his grief. Not surprisingly, the one female character, Sarah (Casey Payden), gets short shrift. Payden has very little to work with as such a stock type. Bumbalo does better with Jim (Brian Vermeire), a younger man who is so terrified he can't even visit Eddie in the hospital. Vermeire steals the scene when a panic attack makes him leave a dinner party.

Director Martin Barter creates a handful of striking moments, such as a brief disco scene--a flashback to their lives before Eddie's illness. The biggest flaw in the production is the music between scenes;it allows long scene changes, when the set and costumes should support an almost seamless narrative.

BE THERE

"Adam and the Experts," at the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends July 19. $15. (818) 509-9651.

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