Off Broadway play `Beirut' imagines a special AIDS dilemma

``Beirut,'' by Alan Bowne, is the first Off Broadway play to deal with the AIDS crisis in a wholly heterosexual context. The action takes place ``in the near future'' on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, nicknamed after the Lebanese capital because it's like a war zone. Its inhabitants are New Yorkers who have been diagnosed as carriers of the AIDS virus. Beirut is less a hospital than a prison, where the ill are condemned to languish for whatever remains of their lives. One of the main characters, a young man named Torch, has no sign of AIDS except a positive blood-test result. Yet he knows Beirut is now his permanent home. The other main character is Blue, an AIDS-free woman who sneaks into the forbidden zone to be with the man she loves.

The play focuses on a desperate confrontation between them - as Blue explains why she'd rather have a short, love-filled life than many years of loneliness, and Torch pleads with her to abandon him for her own safety. Both of them switch positions more than once before the play comes to a dourly romantic conclusion.

As a grim cautionary fable, ``Beirut'' works on two levels. The mechanics of ``safe sex'' get much attention, especially when Torch explains his determination to avoid physical contact with Blue or any AIDS-free person. More important is the play's suggestion that public officials might react to the AIDS crisis in a panicky and destructive way. Beirut is designed not to treat or even to comfort the ill, but merely to segregate them - in a way so brutal that fear of Beirut will join fear of illness in deterring AIDS-free people from sexual activity. The fight against AIDS could become an end in itself, playwright Bowne suggests, and his drama carries this idea to a darkly logical conclusion.

It's important to realize that ``Beirut'' is closer to science fiction than to any real conditions the ``near future'' is likely to bring. Although the play posits an indiscriminate AIDS epidemic, reports of actual research indicate that AIDS is not readily transmitted to most heterosexuals. The play becomes more far-fetched in its description of New York as a whole - where sex is forbidden, babies are produced by high technology, and computerized ``sex detectors'' peer into every corner of society like Big Brother's video cameras in ``1984.'' ``Beirut'' is a powerful evening of theater, however, and - at just under an hour in length - a very concentrated one. Michael David Morrison and Laura San Giacomo give performances of great conviction, supported by Terry Rabine as a nasty guard who shows up to check Torch's cell-like apartment.

Jimmy Bohr, the director, manages to convey the strong sexual feelings of Torch and Blue without crossing into overly explicit behavior.

Now being staged by the Manhattan Class Company at the Westside Arts Theatre, the play was originally ``workshopped'' last year at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

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