Monday, January 29, 2018

"Still at Risk"

Still at Risk
Tim Pinckney

The Cast of Still at Risk
As the final decade of the twentieth century was just beginning, an article in the July 16, 1990 New York Times reported that in the U.S., “212 cases of
full-blown AIDS are diagnosed every day; there is one AIDS death every 12 minutes; and a new case of infection every 54 seconds.”  At a time when between one and one-and-a-half-million Americans were already infected, Larry Kramer -- the article’s author and a founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the in-your-face activist group ACT UP -- advocated a “Manhattan Project” for AIDS, “an equivalent of the scientific effort that produced the atomic bomb.”

A quarter century later, being HIV-positive is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was; and much has been done to curtail new infections.  In former AIDS hot-beds like New York and San Francisco, there is often voiced concern – especially by those who lived through and survived the devastating ‘80s and ‘90s – that millennial gays have no appreciation for what they and the thousands who died went through and that the younger set does understand the real threat of it happening again. 

Into this present atmosphere where a daily PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) pill virtually and thankfully eliminates the risk of infection but where there is an also increasing ho-hum attitude toward the lurking dangers of AIDS, Tim Pinckney has written a play appropriately titled Still at Risk.  Currently receiving its world premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center – home to the first program in the U.S. to tour schools educating students about AIDS -- Tim Pinckney laces through his tight script a mixture of one survivor’s lingering anger, guilt, and regrets with generous helpings from that survivor, his friends, and his foes of razor-sharp humor, ego-packed hubris, and genuinely felt heart.

Showing up at his best friend’s apartment covered in dung from a slip on a New York sidewalk, Kevin’s stinky self is appropriately symbolic of his current state in life.  Going into his seventh (or is it eighth?) year of unemployment, this former ACT-UP veteran once taught AIDS-awareness workshops while naked in bathhouses; and he still wears his number of times arrested as a proud badge of honor.  Today he is steaming mad that an upcoming benefit to honor the founders of the Manhattan AIDS Project is excluding one key person – Eric, his lover of many years who died quickly and horrifically of the disease they both fought hard to get others in the Reagan/Bush years to confront.  Scott Cox is brilliantly convincing as a wound-up ball of still-smoldering fury and frustration, one who is more than ever determined to fight yet one more battle to secure his lover’s rightful honor. To that end, he generously employs his bulldog barking and his bull-in-a-china-shop threats of disruption.  Everything about his Kevin’s current modus operandi upholds the former activist’s claim that “you cannot make change without making people mad and uncomfortable” – and for Kevin those “people” can most certainly include his friends.

He now seeks some clean clothes and a hug of support from his long-time best buddy, Marcus, a handsome, out-of-work actor still famous for his two-time Emmy role in a popular soap opera.  William Giammona has the air of a star even in his own living room, but he is also one who carries an air of vulnerability in his worried eyes that his future may not be as rosy as his past.  There is a bond visceral between the two friends, and yet there is a creeping tension popping up that is somehow connected to the fact that Marcus ‘missed’ the AIDS crisis years while Kevin was there body and soul. 

Kevin heads to meet with the organizer of the upcoming benefit, planning to use an in-your-face presentation of facts to remind the present-day organization that Eric must be honored -- even if Eric was kicked out years ago of the Project he founded after upsetting many donors and board members with his highly confronting and accusing tactics.  (Think of Larry Kramer and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis for a real-life example.) 

William Giammona & Desiree Rogers
In the waiting room, he runs into an old friend, Susan, who is gathering data to write an article about the benefit. A former lesbian activist, Susan is now married to Roger (an ACLU lawyer) and mother to a kid, all news to shocked Kevin.  The two immediately pick up an evidently long-practiced, back-and-forth script that makes them sound like a comic duo in a West Village club.  Susan is particularly talented in three-word comebacks delivered in a dry, dead-pan manner in between her calling Kevin a string of names like “Mary Beth” and “Little Nellie.”  Desiree Rogers does not miss a beat in shooting her one-liner, usually good-natured arrows as Susan, using her ever-expressive, bold eyes and her ways of using a look to say the paragraph her few, spoken works omit. 

J. Conrad Frank & William Giamonna
Both Kevin and Susan are about to meet their match in Byron, the Project’s newly hired and quite young director of fund-raising.  He is the determined head of this benefit dinner where raising record dollars appears to be his only goal (for the good of the cause and the better of his own reputation).  With a voice that slides ever so freely up and down hills and around corners, J. Conrad Frank as Byron makes his points with toothy smiles, flashing blinks of his eyes, and a half-turned up arm against his chest whose hand talks as much as his mouth.  But for all his forced charm, this Byron is the epitome of confidence and cockiness and a force both Kevin and Susan soon learn is formidable. 

J. Conrad Frank & Matt Weimer
Into the fast-building drama over Eric’s being omitted as an honoree enters Christopher, trust-fund rich and ready to write a big check for Byron’s star-studded benefit.  That Christopher (a southern-drawler aristocratically played by Matt Weimer) was also Eric’s partner his final six months may explain why he greets Kevin upon their meeting with “I thought I smelled anger and discontent.”  It also explains why Kevin is so disgustingly appalled that this rich, come-late-to-the-party do-gooder is now stealing his role in advocating for some mention of Eric – and doing so with a check versus with righteous-rich demands.

Each member of this well-picked cast has moments nothing short of stunning.  Emotions rage –expressed both in voices raised and in looks that can kill.  But those emotions also take surprising and moving turns; and both this cast and their director, Dennis M. Lickteig, show deft skills in allowing those emotions to flow naturally and convincingly.  As director, Mr. Lickteig brings the action to points just short of either too-silly comedy or too-exaggerated chaos, but he clearly also knows just the moment to settle back into a story that always feels currently realistic and relevant. 

How difficult is it to let go of all those years of fear and pain and to move on into a world where there is actually mounting hope for a cure?  How understanding can a new generation really be of a history that is in some ways just as ancient to them as the Vietnam War or the horrors of WWII?  What would it look like not to forget and to honor those who paved the way for today with their lives and/or their anger and activism?  These are just some of the questions the director and this cast milk from this rich and efficient script -- a script in its first full production and yet a script that already feels near perfection in achieving the goal of engaging and educating today’s audience about a time not so far, yet in many ways so distant from today.

The underlying message of ‘never forget’ plays out powerfully in the arresting set design of Devin Kasper.  Triangles occupy everything from the shape of furniture to dramatic room dividers, with the triangle being of course reminiscent of the pink patches gay Holocaust victims were forced by Nazis to wear and are the shape throughout the world today of never-forget memorials to those victims.  With some triangles dangling precariously in the air, there is a sense that remembering the past is in jeopardy.  However, from Mr. Kasper’s background wall of rippling waves where Maxx Kurzunski’s beautiful, multi-colored lighting seeps through, there is an implied message of hope that this generation will figure out how both to remember and to continue to fight until AIDS is no longer.  The star-studded creative team also includes Theodore JH Hulsker bringing his ever-excellent sound design and Jorge R. Hernandez who adds much of the play’s humor and fun through costumes that define and enhance both the quirky and highly individualistic natures of the five characters we meet.

Still at Risk is an important addition to the American theatre scene that hopefully will have long legs to play all across the land.  This is a play especially calling for younger audiences, including those of high school and college ages.  It educates without being preachy or pedantic; and it entertains with its humor while sucking in its audience to consider difficult questions needing to be considered and addressed.  Congratulations to Artistic Director Ed Decker and New Conservatory Theatre Center for finding and nurturing to its well-deserved world premiere this compelling, affecting new play.

Rating: 5 E

Still at Risk continues through February 25, 2018 on the Walker Stage of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos Credit:  Lois Tema

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