A Chronicle of An Epidemic
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
When David J. Glass’ new play about the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic Love + Science finds its voice and its rhythm, for want of a better word, it become a moving, thoughtful, and very human play that effectively captures, the uncertainty, fear, and anger that characterized the early days of the epidemic.
Glass, who in addition to being a five-times-produced playwright, is also medical researcher, a lecturer at Harvard Medical school, and a professor at Columbia, starts the play with a rom-com meeting between Matt and Jeff on their first day of medical school and slides into a somewhat complex history of the discovery of retroviruses and the research into how a virus could cause leukemia. The “meet-cute” establishes the relationship between Matt, a white guy from the Midwest who is just discovering his sexuality, and Jeff, a person of color, from New York, a denizen of the New York gay scene in the late 1970s. They both work on viruses in the lab of Dr. Gold, presumably at Columbia. Despite feeling somewhat forced, the information is efficiently (and quickly) delivered, and, more importantly, it’s essential to understanding the rest of the play, particularly to a generation raised with PrEP for whom an HIV diagnosis is not an immediate death sentence.
What Glass captures so poignantly is the fear that surrounded the sudden emergence of GRID (AIDS was originally called “gay-related immune deficiency for the virus’ making the body vulnerable to a wide range of seemingly unrelated conditions from Kaposi’s Sarcoma to bacterial pneumonia and others.) and how in a matter of months it transformed—and in some cases polarized—the LGBTQ+ community.
As Matt and Jeff develop a relationship, the sex grinds to a halt when Matt fears that he is infected. How could he not be given his sexual history? In the days before testing, when it was thought incubation could take years, some people like Matt became celibate while others like Jeff were careful but refused to give up their newfound freedom. Set against a kind of documentary background of the evolution of understanding of HIV and the emergence of treatments, Matt and Jeff’s relationship becomes strained as Jeff becomes an activist while Matt buries himself in the lab searching for answers.
Of course, there have been many plays about the AIDS crisis. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart was a political cry of rage at a culture that ignored the dead and dying because of whom they loved. Terrence McNally’s 1991 Lips Together, Teeth Apart examined the impact of AIDS on heterosexuals. Paul Rudnick’s 1993 Jeffrey dared to make light of so-called “AIDS panic” as whole groups of men chose celibacy over risk. Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance in 2019 detailed in heartbreaking detail the emotional impact of the epidemic and the generational trauma it caused for young, gay men. And those are just three. Each has in its own way added something to the body of literature about AIDS. Love + Science likewise makes an important contribution in exploring epidemiology how politics and bigotry cloud understanding and in the case of HIV, often dehumanized those afflicted.
Ultimately, Matt and Jeff resolve their conflicts. In our world, sadly, it is impossible to divorce the clinical and the cultural. In a trenchant coda, we see Matt, now 40 years into his research, confronting COVID—and so many of the same issues—as well as a new generation of queer people.
The piece has been directed with sensitivity and insight by Allen MacLeod, and the outstanding cast gives the piece heart—even overcoming quibbles about the script Jonathan Burke is energetic and passionate as Jeff. Thursday Farrar finds nuance and heart as Dr. Gold, and Imani Peral Williams is outstanding as Matt’s young lab assistant Melissa, whose exuberance as positive outlook stands in stark contrast to Matt’s young days. Matt Walker gives a star turn as Matt. It’s a performance of great economy and depth, making what might be an unsympathetic character in lesser hands a gimlet-eyed representation of a man caught between his heart and his mind. The rest of the company, taking on a variety of roles, is excellent, fluidly and feelingly evoking time and place.
Since 1981 when GRID first came to Los Angeles, there have been many Matts and many Jeffs. There have been many people who have loved and lost, and many, too, have loved and survived. If you were there and are here, this play is a stark reminder of what so many endured. Glass even deftly addresses the guilt around the seemingly randomness of who never were infected, though they certainly might have been. If you weren’t there, it’s an essential portrayal of the history of our community—and how many around the world have been helped because we would not be silenced.
Love + Science
New York City Center Stage II
131 West 55th Street
Mon, Tues, Thurs-Sat 7:30 p.m.; Sat, Sun 2:30 p.m. through July 6
Tickets from $25 here.
Production Photos by Emilio Madrid
Published June 12, 2023