Plays written in answer to an immediate public crisis don't have to be written for the ages. It's enough that they help the viewer to acknowledge the crisis and to see the need for a personal response to it. If Robert Chesley's "Night Sweat" at the Fifth Estate Theatre helps its audiences to do that in regard to the AIDS crisis, it's welcome.
That doesn't make it a good play--although it's surely not as hapless a play as it looks at the Fifth Estate. Playwright Chesley does have guts. First performed in May '84 at New York's Gay Meridian Theatre, "Night Sweat" was the first full-scale dramatic examination of the impact of AIDS on gay men and Chesley didn't take the obvious approach of showing us two brave guys Facing This Thing Together.
"Night Sweat" is, rather, a nightmare suffered by a young man (Tim Stetson) who may not have contacted the disease at all--although his doctor has. The scene of the nightmare is a high-tech gay club called the Coup de Grace, where, for a price, an AIDS victim can arrange to have his life terminated with an orgiastic "scene" of his choice.
Not only is this a more defiant way to go than withering away in the hospital, it avoids dragging in lovers and relatives. The process is, of course, just a bit impersonal--but style has its price. And Coup de Grace's director, Max Drew, can supply almost any kind of final scene imaginable: a cowboy shoot-out with real bullets, a opera love death with real knives, a crematorium number with red-hot pincers. . . .
Playwright Chesley clearly hopes that his audience will pick up on the parallel (exaggerated, of course) to certain commercial establishments catering to gay fantasies. There is even a hint that the AIDS epidemic may have stemmed from experiments conducted by the non-gay powers behind such establishments on their gay clientele--a parallel to the experiments of the Nazi death camps.
At its best Chesley's script suggests Swift's "Modest Proposal," an angry satire that forces the viewer to look at the causes of a problem by presenting an unthinkable final solution to it. True, our hero's night at the Coup de Grace ends on a positive note, with a tribute to human commitment--and safe sex. But parts of his journey ought to curl your hair.
But at the Fifth Estate, Walpurgisnacht comes off as Amateur Night. Obviously the stage is too small for the scenic demands of the play; obviously there wasn't any kind of budget; and one can well believe director Michael Kearns' claim that it's hard to round up actors for a play so frankly gay as this.
All this may explain why the production is so bad, but it doesn't really excuse its badness: the by-rote line readings, the wan lighting, the muddled blocking, the cardboard-looking set. Those three campy nuns at the end of the play weren't the only aspect of the show that reminded you of a church pageant. Gay theater has simply got to be tougher on itself if it wants to turn minds around.
Robert Chesley's play, at the Fifth Estate Theatre. A Dark Horse production. Associate producer Anthony Marshall. Director Michael Kearns. Designer F. Valentine Hoover III. With Tim Stetson, Max Drew, David Stebbins, Franc Cagiano, Jerry Clark, John Callahan, Michael Gerard, Brian Lee, Michael Day, Tom Cunningham, Tony Vento, Michael Farmer and George Balzer. Plays Wed.-Sun at 8 p.m. Runs indefinitely. Tickets $9. 1707 N. Kenmore. (213) 666-0434.