Contagion converts human bodies into weapons. The “gay disease,” an early name for the AIDS pandemic, burgeoned in the time of President Ronald Reagan, who initially did nothing to even acknowledge it existed. Likewise, COVID-19 which began in the time of an even more derelict Republican president, unfolded as a ubiquitous horror which could impact all mortal flesh because it was easily contracted in the air. For gay men who had been traumatized by the AIDS crisis, COVID-19 was a PTSD slap in the face, a double whammy. How does one reconcile the remembrances of friends who died of AIDS with the current COVID plague that still roams and kills older friends or those who have HIV autoimmune vulnerabilities or co-morbidities?
Insightful playwrights like Eduardo Machado, who have lived through both plagues, reconcile their emotions by writing. Machado’s latest play Not About Me, currently running at Theater for the New City until February 5th is an evocative, quasi, avant-garde, memory play which references an alignment between both plagues. As a result it raises trenchant questions which we must consider and confront as a culture or doom ourselves to greater catastrophes.
Machado, a gay Cuban-American playwright who lived through the AIDS crises, found himself slammed with memories from that time, while negotiating COVID-19 quarantines, masking and isolation. Moving through the present crises, during these plague years, he recalled images of friends and events from “the first crises of his generation.” Themes about death and dying, isolation, loneliness and the desperate need for real, human connection resurfaced from that time in the early 1980s. These recollections linked with the present time almost four decades later.
Inspired to write about these themes, his friendships and companionable ideas, Machado’s Not About Me, which he also directs, takes place when the “gay disease” evilly blossomed. He evokes that time with music and sound (David Margolin Lawson) original music (Michael Domitrovich) minimalist sets (Mark Marcante) props (Lytza Colon) lighting (Alex Bartenieff) puppet designer/maker (Emily Irvine) and costumes (Kelsey Charter). At the back of the playing area hangs a neutral colored backdrop, upon which atmospheric film clips at various junctures are projected (Bird Rogers). These clips, which Machado also directed, convey cultural memes in their grainy, stylized, “period” ambience. One clip of figures costumed and made up for the Halloween Day Parade in the Village is particularly intriguing. It portends a magnificent irony. A “hedonistic,” colorful and carefree, gay lifestyle was gradually being smashed to bits with the ugliness of Kaposi sarcoma lesions and withering physical symptoms of AIDS. Two of Eduardo’s friends begin to manifest symptoms before the plague has a name.
The main character, whose gay friends call Ed (a point of friendly sub rosa bigotry) is the playwright’s avatar/alter ego, Eduardo portrayed by Mateo d’Amato. COVID-19 has compelled Eduardo to relate what he went through in the 1980s from the current perspective of COVID’s horrors. Thus, d’Amato’s Eduardo filters two plagues through his psyche as the unreliable narrator, who directly addresses the audience, then dramatically activates his memories with a picaresque, hybrid play with characters inspired by his friends and two actresses. Eduardo addresses the audience at the beginning of the play, during the play and most importantly at the conclusion, when he importunes the audience and evokes an estranged friend from that time, Tommy (Charles Manning) who may still be alive (despite COVID) and present in the audience.
D’Amato’s Eduardo recalls certain events and exchanges with gay friends in New York City via selective memory, a clue to the main character and themes. In the opening address Eduardo stops himself three times and redirects his narrative. Is there something he wishes to disguise or hide, or is this a dramatic artifice? The gaps in the play indicate that Eduardo’s personality and the image of himself he wishes to convey perhaps reveal a skewed remembrance. What results includes a mash of emotions and encounters in a wild and sometimes unflattering portrait of a bi-sexual who fronts and manipulates his gay friends and most probably his wife Harriet, who never appears onstage. He appears most sincere and authentic when he desperately reaches out for comfort from two gay friends, and when he reveals his fear and insecurity to female actress friend Marjorie (Sharon Ullrich covered for Crystal Field when I saw the play). Marjorie knows he is gay.
Eduardo continually shifts in antic behavior, especially when he is doing drugs. He appears to be a flaunting egotist, shy, reticent, mercurial and effusive with various gay friends. Then he shape-shifts to wily confidence, compliments and expressed “love” with actress friend Donna (Heather Velasquez). In short he is an actor in his real life and an enigma at times to himself. He has learned to “front” because of his Cuban heritage which his gay friends ignore and attempt to suppress when they are clubbing. His center does not hold well, especially when he uses drugs. Eduardo’s fleeting, sincere moments waver, and he appears most real with Marjorie and at times with Gerald (Michael Domitrovich) and Tommy (Charles Manning). And he seems most persuasively authentic when he addresses the audience, just before the lights dim at the conclusion.
This bold play is a discomforting landscape of Eduardo’s ambivalences searching for love, feeling lost and found and lost, as he yearns for a relationship with someone who can fill the void and make him feel less alone. Why he has not found this with his wife Harriet is revealed in a discussion with friend Marjorie who mentions that she noted Harriet does all the talking when they were together. He is not free with Harriet who dominates, though he has so much to offer. Ironically, this admixture of confused emotions and scattershot behavior fueled by Eduardo’s use of drugs runs rampant under the hovering cloud of the “gay disease,” which creates a great disconnect and human isolation for both the straight and gay society.
Tragically, the playwright reveals that it is a time when innocents, who did not understand what was looming, marched into the fire without safeguards because there were none. Many died before the medical profession woke up and began to identify what “the disease” was about. If this sounds familiar, parallels with the current plague subtly dot Not About Me. Both diseases have a similar ethos. We are still experiencing both. Thankfully, there are medicines and vaccines which can mitigate death, but not always.
After d’Amato’s Eduardo gives his initial opening salvo, the play seamlessly moves to abundant flashbacks as Eduardo relives in his memory his experiences as a bi-sexual among gay friends and actresses Donna and Marjorie in this time when he was an actor and emerging playwright. Marjorie is an actress of renown with whom he rehearses a Tennessee Williams one act out in LA where Eduardo lives with Harriet, who is at least two decades older. Marjorie (Sharon Ullrich gives a heartfelt, touching performance) and Eduardo have a close friendship. She confides that she is dying of cancer and she will help him perfect his acting skills. In exchange, he will give her a sense of purpose and help her sustain the time she has left as they rehearse, then present the one-act at Ensemble Studio Theatre (LA).
Eduardo confesses that he is afraid of dying and doesn’t want to lose her. It is ironic that she is there for him at a critical point in his life as a preview for what will come with the death of friends. As they rehearse, to become closer to the character he is playing, she suggests he think of a time when he was lost.
Eduardo’s reverie opens up and he steps seamlessly into a gay bar in New York City when he was on Ecstasy and dancing with his friends. Though he is a professed bi-sexual and holds up his wife Harriet as a badge of honor, he is entranced by his gay friends and on the “down-low.” He especially is lost in desire for a beautiful director who wishes to direct a play of his.
The gay friends include the caustic, jealous Frank (Ellis Charles Hoffmeister gives a humorous, edgy portrayal) the kindhearted, sweet Tommy (Charles Manning is spot-on) and Paul (Drew Valins is a quiet, sensitive buffer in the group). Paul is the one who alerts them to the “gay disease” and first identifies he has has “it.” Tommy and Frank also lust after the gay director Gerald (Michael Domitrovich, who co-wrote Tastes like Cuba with Machado). As they watch Gerald looking at Eduardo as he dances by himself, they become jealous when he joins Eduardo. Both Gerald and Eduardo feel “something” for each other and Gerald’s beauty unsettles him as does his kiss which humiliates Eduardo initially.
Clearly, the Ecstasy which is supposed to acclimate him to the gay bar makes him frenetic. Though Gerald proposes a future “date” of intimacy for them, it never pans out. In the interim, Gerald finds out he has the “unnamed” disease. Though Eduardo attempts intimacy, desperate to make a connection based on love, Gerald shows Eduardo the Kaposi sarcoma and pushes him away telling Eduardo he must “live” and continue working his art. Gerald doesn’t want to kill him. This is the first death knell of the play. It is chilling and tragic.
Additional flashbacks shift between Eduardo’s rehearsal with Marjorie in LA and his encounters with Donna (Heather Velasquez) who he cast in his play which she must later turn down. His relationships with Marjorie and Donna evolve as Eduardo’s ambivalence about his sexuality intensifies and rumors of the “gay disease” grow. His confused emotions turn into a confluence of attractions and “love” for Gerald and Donna. However, as with Gerald, his intimacy with Donna is never meant to be. Though he and Donna discuss a permanent relationship and divorcing their partners, by this point “the gay disease” is moving through the gay population with a vengeance and straight people are rumored to have it. Paul and Gerald are sick. We experience a growing dread because we know the dire consequences, though Frank boldly asserts, “I’m going to live my life.”
When Marjorie dies, Eduardo’s center collapses. He throws himself at his gay friends and tries to initiate intimacy to stave off his aloneness. However, when Frank and Tommy “fight” for him, interestingly, Tommy insists he will be with Eduardo. Frank, who is clear-eyed, accuses Tommy of being with Eduardo to protect him from AIDS, which at this point, they both have, though they don’t admit it. As Frank leaves in jealousy and disgust, Eduardo seeks comfort in Tommy’s embrace. Tommy makes sure they engage in “safe sex.” Though Tommy attempts to have Eduardo commit to him when he is in New York, Eduardo is a chameleon and he must be in the driver’s seat as his career takes off.
After his intimacy with Tommy and his last visit with Gerald who is dying of AIDS (d’Amato’s and Domitrovich’s powerful scene is beautifully wrought) Gerald dies and the rumor goes around that the AZT experimental drug they gave Gerald actually hastened his death. Gerald’s forever absence is an emotional devastation. Eduardo’s notions about bi-sexuality end in gay authenticity. When he shares that he can’t be with Donna and that he is gay, she takes him to an evangelical meeting to pray and exorcise the “gay” out of them. The scene is hysterical. The ensemble in masks becomes the aroused prayer warriors and Donna (Velasquez is LOL believable and funny) “shakes, rattles and rolls” releasing her “lesbianism.” She, too, is bi-sexual. When the same preacher (Domitrovich) exorcises the “gay” from Eduardo, Eduardo fakes it, then reveals he faked it. This blows up Donna’s plans for their divorces and marriage to each other. Outraged, Donna throws up her hands in a cross and tells the Eduardo “devil” to get away from her. Eduardo states to the audience that he never saw her again except in films which she swore she would never do again. He is thankful the exorcism didn’t work. (So much for gay conversion which was rampant at that time.)
There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see the play to discover the direction d’Amato’s Eduardo takes with friends who are still alive and what his injunction is to the audience at the conclusion.
Mateo d’Amato with antic enthusiasm and “dramatic” verve that covers over a brooding loneliness, isolation and emotional pain, persuasively shows that the Latino Eduardo is hiding in plain sight. Lightning glimpses of the depths of his despair flash then vanish as the Ed persona takes over to dazzle, annoy, make jealous, provoke and boast about his exploits. Of all his gay “friends” Tommy appears to understand him best: understand his protests he is “bi-sexual,” understand his aloneness. It is Tommy who empathizes with him and loves him when he needs it most, though ultimately, he knows they are just friends.
One of the most important take-aways from the bold and profound Not About Me is we must and should remember and learn from the past. And if it is not in the DNA of some to learn and change and be better, then perhaps as some did then and still do now, go ahead and ignore the warnings, like Frank. Frank understands that regardless, he will live and he will die and it is best to live as he wishes and accept the consequences of his choices. However, underneath it all, we never find out if Frank goes ahead and intentionally infects others without “safe sex,” knowing he has AIDS. Unlike Frank, Tommy will not. Later in the play we understand after another event, Tommy is an incredible friend worth keeping.
For his part d’Amato’s Eduardo always plays it safe with a healthy fear of death and dying and solipsism. Certainly, the characters in Not About Me, who don’t make it are the innocent victims, not understanding what they were up against, until it was too late. For those who have been warned in our current time and don’t believe the consequences or ignore them not caring that they may infect others, the same cannot be said if they willfully, politically flaunt contagion and their contagiousness.
Machado’s play appears to be a labor of love seasoned with doses of self-revelation that filters youth through the wisdom of remembrance and understanding. It explores past foibles and “warts” through an opaque lens of forgiveness, through which one might emerge cleansed or guiltier than ever that one is spilling “truth,” yet hiding in plain sight. (Though Machado borrows from his life to make assertions, the play is a fiction.) Throughout, the playwright brings us to the present day, always with these questions. What has been learned? Are we as a culture any wiser? Is Eduardo the avatar any wiser after sharing his reflections, pain and emotions? Or are we evolving into a greater muck with “one foot on a banana peel,” as we attempt to race forward to forget? The play brings these and other questions to the fore in its tragicomedy and ironies.
Not About Me is a must-see for its hybrid genre, its re-imagined collage of truths and realities about a “distant time.” It is notable for its acute and interesting performances and fine ensemble work. The high points shine with black comedy and a sardonic tone. Even more notable are its gripping moments of drama in its portrayals of individuals who have died and now live as flashes of light and darkness and evanesce, once the play is over and the audience applauds the actors.
For those too young to remember that time, and for those who do remember recoiling at the “gay disease,” the playwright conveys what it must have felt like for his gay friends and himself, who endured and suffered as they watched others cycle through symptoms, feared death, tried to live, stopped thinking, and tried to move past heartbreak via drugs or escapism or love as they hoped that things would get better. They eventually did get better, until the whole world shut down in quarantine and “resurrected” over one million, two hundred thousand dead (Worldometer) in the U.S. Our three-year COVID anniversary is coming up in March for the shutdown, though COVID was in the culture long before that, as noted by former President Donald Trump in Bob Woodward’s Rage.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the playwright is a friend whose classes I have enjoyed. Thus, this review has been one of the most difficult tasks as a reviewer and Drama Desk voter. That said, I highly recommend the play, especially for the younger generations, both straight and LGBTQ, who don’t even worry about AIDS contagion, thanks to Machado’s generation that went before them. For tickets and times go to Theater for the New City’s website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/