Theater review: ‘As Is’ at the McCadden Place Theatre
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‘The only thing holding me together is rage,” declares an infected gay man in an uncomfortably truthful moment of “As Is,” William M. Hoffman’s groundbreaking 1985 drama about the early days of the AIDS pandemic.
“As Is” was the first Broadway play to deal openly with the outbreak of AIDS in the gay community, predating Larry Kramer’s better-known “The Normal Heart” by a month. In a potent revival from the New American Theatre, it remains a chilling snapshot of the dread, uncertainty and despair at a time when diagnosis meant a death sentence and people wondered if it was safe even to share a telephone.
Like most AIDS-themed plays that came after it, “As Is” depicts the effect of the disease on a relationship — in this case between Saul (Mark Shunock), a domestically inclined, self-sacrificing photographer, and his acerbic, far edgier former lover, Rich (Charles Pasternak). What distinguishes both “As Is” and “The Normal Heart,” however, is their visceral sense of panic and confusion at the emergence of the new “gay plague” that did not even have a formal name until 1982.
Where Kramer’s more activist rhetoric rails against the political climate of willful neglect that greeted the disease’s outbreak among an outcast demographic, Hoffman’s more personal focus is on Rich and Saul’s journey of forgiveness and acceptance, set against insightful, intimate details of bar pickups, help line counseling services and hospice care.
While John Farmanesh-Bocca’s serious-minded staging forgoes most of the script’s opportunities for comic relief, it heightens the sense of outrage via a menacing choreographed chorus in Ronald Reagan Halloween masks — a striking and creepy visual device designed to provoke awareness in those who aren’t old enough to remember the era’s cold political calculus, and strike a resonant chord in those who are. -– Philip Brandes
“As Is,” McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 McCadden Place, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Dec. 17. $34.50. (310) 701-0788 or www.newamericantheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.