Alan Browne was not a beatnik, so far as I know, but Robert Hooker is. And it's not just the goatee — it's the way Mr. Hooker's Sol Theatre Project can occasionally spit in the face of its own limitations and blast off to Elsewhere. This doesn't happen all the time, as anybody who spends any time at Sol knows well. Quite often, the company has scooched by with merely-weird or outright bad shows that reaffirmed every nasty thing the pinched-sphinctered dramarati ever thought about low-rent, non-equity theater companies. Sometimes, Sol manages to pull off a standard-brand good show; the kind of thing the sphinctery folk can enjoy.
But this is not Sol's m.o.They are like visionary teenagers shaking apart from the internal combustion of their own new hormones and newly awakened drives to feel, see, explore; streaking out into the night in search of soul communion and transcendence and booze. Call it the Kerouac trip. When Hooker's Solsters aren't pursuing something with that special whiff of magic about it, they just look bored.
This is not the case in their revival of Alan Browne's 1990 play Beirut. It's a dystopian story about a world in the not-too-distant future, in which a sexually-transmitted virus has decimated the population and so frightened the American government that anyone who tests positive is dropped off in "Beirut" — a high-tech leper colony, known in happier days as the Lower East Side. In Beirut, the infected masses live in tiny efficiency apartments, where the "lesion squad" comes pounding on the door at 3 a.m. to see if they're still asymptomatic. It's a bad place to be, but not necessarily any less pleasant than the world beyond Beirut's razor-wired walls. Outside, the sex = death ethic of the mid-'80s has exploded into an anti-love culture that has pervaded everything. There are "sex detectors" on the walls, in the bushes, everywhere you go, and nobody will touch you.
Beirut zooms in on two wretched characters in this more wretched world: Torch and Blue. Torch, played by Todd Bruno, is infected, and a big "P" has been tattooed on his buttock to let everyone know. Blue, played by Julia Clearwood, was his girlfriend before he was dragged off to Beirut. They never slept together. In this world, hardly anybody does.
Except, that is, in Beirut itself, where no one cares because everyone's the walking dead. Blue has risked her life to break in — other unauthorized wall-crawlers are hanging dead from streetlamps, presumably as an example to anybody with similarly naughty ideas — and has somehow found Torch's apartment. The play opens with sirens, and big voices over a loudspeaker announcing the security breach. People out of their rooms will be shot on sight. The message concludes with "Have a nice day."
What follows is 75 minutes of Blue begging Torch to consummate their aborted relationship, and Torch trying to demur. He'd rather talk about all the reading he's done on the disease. In the '80s, this was Browne's attempt to editorialize on the state of the exploding AIDS epidemic (which would claim his life in 1989); now it scans as a learned fear of intimacy. Torch views everything through the lens of what his wardens and culture have taught him. When told about the bodies dangling from the lamp post, he cries, "They wouldn't! That's not sanitary!"
At some point, the lesion squad comes calling, and they force both Torch and Blue to disrobe, lift, and spread 'em. The scene is the play's lone moment of real action, the single incursion of the play's brutal world into Torch's little sanctuary, and it's devastating. You never see the squad because they're standing in a doorway. What you see are Torch and Blue, humiliated in silhouettes against the squad's brilliant white floodlights. The scene steals the meager dignity the two have been building since the first scene, and in its wake, you feel as broken as they must.
Prior to this moment, the play has been all talk. It becomes all talk again after the squad departs, but there's new desperation in it — the talking is more like begging or screaming or pleading. Blue wants sex, and she wants it now, maybe she even needs it, and Torch is just too frightened. Sex = death, as he knows, and he loves Blue. For reasons Torch cannot explain, he knows you cannot touch someone you love.
Sol's Beirut has its problems — the New York accents sometimes make you feel like you're watching a dystopian take on My Cousin Vinnie; the beginning of the play feels too slow, even timid; and sometimes you can't hear the actors at all. It says something about the power of the production's vision, though, that even these deficiencies cannot dim the irreducible image of Julia Clearwood screaming to be fucked. This is as jolting an image as you'll see on any stage, because it's not just an image of mid-'80s AIDS patients, or even of sexually hung-up people in dire need of a lay. Even if it was those things, it's not anymore — the specter of AIDS hasn't kept the nation up nights for years, and anybody who's not sexxxed to the maxxx in the decade of I Am Charlotte Simmons and Tila Tequila just isn't trying. An image of longing like that, of total flesh-rending desperation to feel and be felt, is a primal yowl from the heart of the zeitgeist.
This is not the isolated frustration of any particular demographic. This is everybody — at least, everybody who still carries around a part of themselves that's a visionary teenager and mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, and desirous, you might say, of everything at the same time.
Though this is Beirut's new subject matter, almost 20 years after its first production, it's also the real impulse behind every show the Solsters mount at their down-and-dirty best. They do this in the perhaps naive hope that we, their audience, are moved by those same impulses. On a good night at Sol, you get the sense that these quixotic crazies mean to satisfy those impulses. Catch enough good nights, and you almost believe they can.