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Death Pool

Before AIDS was about drug therapy cocktails or the wholesale devastation of sub-Saharan Africa, it was about the mysterious absence of loved ones spirited away by a sudden plague. Adding to the anguish of those early AIDS years was the fact that our infected loved ones, more often than not, represented a subgroup reluctantly willing to knuckle under to conventional morality and squirrel away their personal lives from their own families. Yeah, I'm talking about gay men.

It's in one of those distinct absences that the straight married couples in Terrence McNally's 1991 Lips Together, Teeth Apart, now at the Palm Beach Dramaworks, invite you to wander. Sally and Sam (played by Patti Gardner and Oscar Cheda) find themselves spending Fourth of July at the beach house willed to Sally by her younger brother, David, recently dead from AIDS. Sam's sister Chloe and her husband, John (Angie Radosh and Gordon McConnell), are along for the ride. As you'd expect, the play's four characters have packed along their own secrets from musty hetero closets.

To really understand Lips Together, Teeth Apart, though, you must hear from not just four characters but five. The fifth is the play's setting -- Fire Island. Consider this exchange:

Sally: "I don't enjoy standing on a sun deck in broad daylight on the Fourth of July talking about dildos. I don't think this is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind."

Chloe: "Honey, this is Fire Island, not Palm Beach."

True, this isn't Palm Beach, and an explication of Fire Island as literary character will serve you well before you park the car and walk through Clematis on your journey to the theater. In this setting, notably the "Pines" section of that chic New York barrier island, straight couples are the odd ones out. Fire Island is a gay node, not just because of its freedom-spiked physical isolation (to get there from Manhattan, you hop a two-hour train ride, then a cab and a ferry) but also because of the island's mythic status as an apex of the gay A-list pyramid.

It's a rarefied environment, and a vacation on the island is like spending time in a gay oxygen tent without much to do except swim, eat, party, and fuck (not necessarily in that order). Rinse and repeat. You might recognize Fire Island even if you can't pin it on a map of Long Island, since it often plays the same archetypal character in similarly AIDS flavored films (think Longtime Companion and Parting Glances), serving as the gloriously decadent "before" to the gloomy "after" of curtained urban death chambers.

Anyway, with her brother dead, Sally and her straight friends are on display to David's gorgeous, bikini-clad gay neighbors, who listen to opera or Billie Holiday as they watch the couples air their dirty laundry on the pool deck. The friendly neighbors wave (from off-stage) and invite them over to watch the fireworks, with no success. These straight couples are the homophobic strangers, under siege in a strange land, afraid to party in boyland or to even to swim in dead David's cool, inviting pool. (Is it infected? You can you get AIDS from a pool, right?)

Sally, who is pregnant, is anguished and conflicted about her brother's death. She has mysterious interactions with a beautiful naked man she sees down on the beach, who waves to her before running into the surf and disappearing. "So I waved back, just in case, but it was more like he was waving to the house than to someone in it," Sally says. He swims out far and disappears. "No one should be out that far alone."

All four of the troubled weekenders sputter and fight, offering revelatory asides about their secret desires. "No one wants to listen to who we really are," confides Sam, who fantasizes about having sex with a teenaged girl. Who cares about who they really are? Chloe suggests dismissively. "Fuck the truth. It's more trouble than it's worth."

The Dramaworks production is meticulous, with a set showing the back of a weathered beach house and lighting that often dramatizes the couples' confessional asides. The acting is skilled and earnest, especially from the women, because McNally's play gives Gardner and Radosh a lot to work with. While the men respond to the Fire Island scene like insecure, teenaged boys, the women focus more on the deeper issues of death and responsibility to loved ones. The riffs of safety and protection consume both melodramatic Chloe, who's the nurturing member of the group, and delicate, bruised Sally. If there's a takeaway image to ponder for the walk back through Clematis, it's that of Sally's searching the beach for a phantom swimmer she can't possibly save (or is it the lost spirit of her dead bro?).

OK, there it is. Lips is about finding sanctuary with fellow humans in a harsh world. Big sisters protect little brothers (Chloe protects Sam). Or big sisters don't protect little brothers (Sally self-destructs over her past failure to protect David). And in the end, there's that damned pool of death, where water touching one touches all. Will any of them jump in?

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Dave Amber

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