When it was first performed in the 1980s, William M. Hoffman's pioneering AIDS drama was an incendiary play that sent shudders through the theatre scene. The piece is the most charged of issue plays and was meant to introduce us to victims of an epidemic that was raging at the time of the work's creation.
Daniel Henning's smooth, but unexceptionally straightforward direction never achieves the desired level of passion and emotional engagement that it should. Henning offers a perfectly decent, by-the-numbers staging that hits its marks in a thoroughly competent way. Sadly, though, the script is dated, much of the sensibility and philosophy surrounding the work remaining affixed to a bygone era. AIDS is still a dire world problem, but our attitudes toward it have undergone a shift in the mainstream culture. This period-piece production is unable to evade the impression of being more outdated than shocking.
In it a fickle writer, Rich (Neil Fournier), dumps his doting lover, Saul (Edward Flores), for the flashier, sexier Chet (John Srednicki). Yet Rich subsequently develops symptoms of HIV and AIDS and is dumped by his new hunk. Saul, still desperately in love with his ex, drags him back so he can take care of him. Rich at first bitterly resents being under his ex's thumb but gradually comes to realize the meaning of true love.
The production is indifferently paced and suffers from a needless energy-sapping ponderousness, even during scenes that are meant to be lighter in tone. Henning also goes for a psychologically obvious staging that feels shallow and orthodox. Frankly it's all a trudge; Fournier's Rich proceeds mechanically through his stages of death—denial, anger, bargaining, and so on—with the inevitability of someone dutifully working his way through a psych textbook.
The actors do what they can, but the performances tend toward standard disease-of-the-week histrionics. The chemistry between Fournier's embittered Rich and Flores' unbelievably supportive Saul doesn't quite work. The most genuinely powerful moment comes from Mark Arnold's turn as Rich's simultaneously homophobic and grieving brother.
"As Is," presented by the Blank Theatre Company at the 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (Sundays only, beginning Feb. 8.) Jan. 24-Feb. 29. $20. (323) 661-9827.