When your friend is diagnosed as HIV-positive, what can you do? Throw him a Positive Party, of course. Hersh (Robert Resnikoff) and Mario (John D'Arcangelo) are an older gay couple whose younger friend Doug (Ryan Murray) has recently been diagnosed with HIV. At the suggestion of some of their youthful pals, Hersh and Mario host a surprise party in Doug's honor, even though the idea is a bit morbid to the two older men, who saw plenty of friends die in the '80s and '90s. What follows is a mostly funny, though occasionally grim, examination of the different generational attitudes about AIDS.
Brian C. Petti's play is almost a 21st-century version of The Boys in the Band. Gay men discuss their lives and troubles, but the script never becomes too preachy. Despite its subject matter, it is mostly comical, with some almost farcical moments, like the drag queen (Christopher Betz) in a schoolgirl uniform who acts like a 12-year-old girl. There are also the recurring gags about how Doug's befuddled mother (Cam Kornman) is still unaware of the fact that her son is HIV-positive, and his friends make frantic efforts to prevent her from learning the real reason for the party. A very serious plot twist comes in halfway through when a neighbor (Brian Linden) who's dying of AIDS stops by. Linden as Peter looked like death warmed over and gives the younger men at the party cause to rethink their cavalier attitudes towards AIDS.
The resources put into this production were very impressive. The extravagant set (designed by Michael Allen) was a perfectly authentic recreation of an apartment, complete with hardwood floors, a kitchen island and a ton of knick-knacks to give it a believably lived-in look.
The party is, as the title implies, a masquerade, and most of the characters are dressed as famous authors. Costumes (by Dennis Ballard) for this masquerade were magnificent. Dante and Shakespeare played host to Cervantes and Tennessee Williams, all in opulent period outfits. Christopher Betz was positively fetching in his schoolgirl uniform (as Margaret from Judy Bloom's "Are you there God, it's me, Margaret").
Brant Thomas Murray's lighting design was also exceptional, often employing the distinctive feature of dimming lights when characters on one part of the stage are whispering, and others can't hear. Nick Dematteo's original music was used sparingly but was equal to all the other design elements.
Performances were also notable, with Brian Linden and Christopher Betz stealing the show with their supporting roles. Leading men Resnikoff and D'Arcangelo provided a strong foundation for the entire ensemble, too.
Mary Geerlof's direction was strong. The stage was crammed full of actors for most of the show, and there was a lot of action that could easily have become chaotic or confusing, but Geerlof made use of the intricate set and lighting to keep the cast from crowding one another.
In an era of "bugchasers," Petti's play is a much-needed and well-timed examination of these issues.
(Also featuring Kelly Tanner, Daryl Brown, and Dan Domingues.)
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Copyright 2004 Charles Battersby