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‘Beirut,’ A New Play About AIDS, Opens Off-Broadway

June 16, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Alan Bowne’s ″Beirut″ is a futuristic, Romeo and Juliet- style love story in which the barrier between the two lovers is not Montague or Capulet but an unnamed, deadly disease.

The obvious inference is AIDS but the word is never mentioned in this harrowing, hour-long examination of two people who finally realize that their love for each other could be the ultimate sacrifice.

The play, which opened last week at off-Broadway’s Westside Arts Theater, is set on New York’s Lower East Side, now nicknamed ″Beirut.″ It’s a desolate, desperate area where people who test positive for this new plague are quarantined. The infected are checked daily for lesions by guards and are executed if any marks appear.

In one dank and dismal cellar - a chilling, evocative setting by Elizabeth Doyle - sits Torch, a macho Brooklyn boy who has tested positive. Into this despair sneaks Torch’s girlfriend, Blue, a computer programmer from Queens.

Blue is supposedly one of the lucky ones. She has tested negative and wants to stay the night. But sex is illegal. Violators are put to death, and the lampposts on 14th Street are festooned with the bodies of people who didn’t believe the government would hang those who break the law.

The arguments between Torch and Blue - frank and scatological - make up much of the play. Despite the four-letter words, Bowne’s blue-collar banter has an odd, lyrical quality that transforms the conflict between the two young lovers into an affirmation of living while accepting the certain-death consequences of their actions.

″I can live without sex and feel dead or risk death and feel alive,″ Blue proclaims as she attempts to seduce Torch, knowing that she will become infected if she does.

Jimmy Bohr’s direction is fast-paced and astute. He mines every bit of suspense in the story including a tense inspection scene that involves a sadistic guard.

Michael David Morrison and Laura San Giacomo are well-matched as the two lovers. Morrison plays Torch as bluff, gruff and tenderhearted, while San Giacomo is an appealing, sexy foil determined to renew their relationship.

The play is disturbing for what its characters seem to advocate: Sex is all right, even if it means death for you and your partner. Love is all you need. What happens later is not faced by the characters or the playwright.

Still, the play’s power can’t be denied. ″Beirut″ remains a mesmerizing nightmare, a horror story that is all too human.

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