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Wit, pathos out of graphic poetry

A bit less shocking than it was 20 years ago, `Jerker' still resonates with candor and comedy.

September 18, 2006|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

Given all that has gone down since "Jerker" was first seen in 1986, it is remarkable how much punch this landmark play still packs. In its taut, 20th anniversary revival at Moving Arts, the late Robert Chesley's renegade AIDS duologue remains as scabrous and potent a plea for love as ever.

"Jerker," archly subtitled "The Helping Hand," follows 20 anonymous phone calls between two San Franciscans circa 1985. It begins as an explicit gay comedy, then subtly moves J.R. (Joe Gill) and Bert (Michael Kearns) into cultural elegy and romantic tragedy.

Nominally less scandalous by today's NC-17 lights, Chesley's brilliantly layered, often-hilarious writing still revels in intimate candor. This sparked a political firestorm in 1986, when an excerpt on KPFK radio spurred the Federal Communications Commission to alter its obscenity guidelines.

Actor-director Kearns, who staged "Jerker's" premiere, uses reader's theater means in the tiny venue to great advantage. Under a "1985" sign, two music stands, arm crutches by one, period cruising apparel by the other, constitute the set. Both actors wear basic black, and Bob Blackburn's fine sound design completes the production values. This no-frills take and the imaginative tactics that stand in for masturbation serve Chesley like gangbusters.

Kearns and Gill are transcendent, mining the graphic poetry for its wit and pathos with devastating control.

It is unlikely that anyone living knows "Jerker" better than Kearns, and he peels back Bert's mannered phone persona with moving eloquence. The nuanced Gill is a revelation as J.R., breathtaking at the climactic bedtime story that extends the fourth wall -- and Chesley's message -- into the audience. Even the age gap between the actors lends heightened poignancy to "Jerker," which memorably sustains its urgent call to caring arms.



Where: Moving Arts, 1818 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Ends: Sept. 30

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 856-6168

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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