Originally published on A Younger Theatre
It’s strange to think that in today’s society, AIDS could ever be described as a ‘gay man’s disease’. Or that you could contract it by touching another afflicted person. Or that it was synonymous with phrases such as ‘cancer’, ‘promiscuous’ or ‘homosexual.’ So when I sat through As Is, I got a sense of how AIDS was perceived when the world didn’t have as much knowledge about it and how it was therefore stigmatised to a much greater extent. I also got a sense of how ostracising the world was towards the gay community – AIDS was almost a smoke screen, an excuse that society used to further distance themselves from this seemingly unnatural group of individuals. The risk in the play was that these serious issues could have been diminished by the writing, but they weren’t. They were real, they were down to earth and they were matter-of-fact. As a play first written and presented in 1985 when AIDS was still considered a ‘gay man’s disease’, William M. Hoffman writes with realistic simplicity and a positive pessimism, which still hits home even today. The depressing comedy reminds me of the Oscar-winning film Little Miss Sunshine.
The story focuses around Rich (Steven Webb), a typically confident and aloof writer, who breaks the news to his former lover Saul (David Poynor), as well as friends and family, that he has AIDS. Rich battles with various related illnesses as he watches all those he held dear start to distance themselves — except for Saul, who stays by his side at times when he doesn’t want or even deserve it. The story also cuts to various flashbacks in the couple’s past and sporadically drops in stories from people that Rich came to know in his life – a hospice worker (Jane Lowe), his brother (Dino Fetscher) and a pregnant wife in his PWA (People with AIDS) group (Natalie Burt) immediately spring to mind.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Rich, who gives a masterful performance. He frequently flits (as is his character) from confident, drunk to emotional and brash then back to his fallback position of artistic pessimism. The shroud that writers often surround themselves with to create an air of mystery and nonchalance is ever present. But it works. Webb has an incredible knack of re-grounding the more poignant moments in the piece with a blasé remark that reminds the audience of how real this situation would be for so many sufferers in the 1980s (and even today).
Saul is a suitable supporting character and it’s clear that the two actors have a great chemistry on set. They feel comfortable around each other and play off each other’s reactions. Poynor has a great way of playing to Webb’s flights of fancy, but still remains the steady companion that Rich needs as the disease progresses. “You have HIV, you’re not radioactive”, brings to light the way Saul reacts to the news when everybody else is simultaneously pulling away. This scene builds really nicely – all the supporting influences in Rich’s life speak over each other to throw in their excuses as they back away, not unlike the polyphonic opening to Company. But Saul remains, steady and stable. Poynor plays this well, but it’s not inspiring – he is outshone here by his counterpart.
The other characters play their parts well too, adding to the overall atmosphere that surrounds Rich on his journey. Fetscher as the brother is typical of a heterosexual and straight-laced New Yorker, unsure of how to behave with his brother’s condition and his homosexuality). The hospice worker (Lowe) is a beautiful addition, with the incredible ability of drawing the audience into her stories as she muses about her experiences around AIDS sufferers. It’s really touching to see her getting so passionate in her final speech when she grapples with religion contradicting her empathy for those afflicted.
I left the play pensive about life for gay people in the 1980s and that is exactly what I was hoping this play would do – make me think. As Is still rings true today despite how far gay rights have progressed and the homosexual stigma has diminished. In a world where gay marriage is now legalised in the US and AIDS affects as many heterosexual people as gay people, the historical link to homosexuality will ever remain. This play does the people behind that fact justice.
As Is is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 1 August. For tickets and more information, see the ATG Tickets website. Photo by Scott Rylander.