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New crop of plays treats AIDS comically, metaphorically

The characters in Paula Vogel's "The Baltimore Waltz" include the Little Dutch Boy who put his finger in the dike and Harry Lime from the Orson Welles movie "The Third Man." And the offbeat tone of Center Stage's current production suggests Hollywood -- or even Disneyland.

And yet, "The Baltimore Waltz" is about AIDS. It is one of the first examples of a new group of AIDS plays that has moved beyond the initial informational, docudrama approach and begun to treat the subject more metaphorically, fantastically, even comically.

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Or, to borrow a phrase from Anne Bogart, who directed the New York premiere, "The Baltimore Waltz" is a harbinger of the second generation of AIDS plays.

The first generation includes Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart," William M. Hoffman's "As Is," Harvey Fierstein's "Safe Sex" and Cheryl West's "Before It Hits Home" (all of which have been produced in this area). These plays not only deal directly with the disease, they are frequently politically charged, educationally oriented and in many cases attempt to shock the audience into awareness.

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Besides "The Baltimore Waltz," representatives of the second generation include the even subtler example of Craig Lucas' "Prelude to a Kiss," in which a sickly old man trades bodies with a healthy young bride, as well as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." The latter, which concludes with the descent of a Steven Spielberg-inspired angel, interweaves the stories of two fictitious couples with the real-life character of Roy Cohn; it has attracted favorable notices in London and is expected to be produced in Los Angeles next season.

From an artistic standpoint, the move to metaphor is a welcome development. But it is also a sad and frightening comment on the prevalence of AIDS. The disease has become so much a part of our culture, it is no longer necessary to refer to it overtly. Audiences don't have to be told what it is; we know all too well.

Putting it another way, "Baltimore Waltz's" Vogel says that while Cheryl West's play -- one of the first to examine the impact of the disease on the black community -- is called "Before It Hits Home," her play could be called "After It Hits Home."

Once audiences are informed about the realities of the disease, metaphor begins to serve the same function it does in many painful situations -- it becomes a coping mechanism. In an interview in Houston, where she restaged her New York production, director Bogart was recently quoted as saying: "If you have something really horrible happen to you, it's very difficult to deal with it directly. Freud knew this. That's why he looked at dreams. You can't look directly at the sun. AIDS is the sun."

The reference to dreams is particularly telling. In "Prelude to a Kiss," which is scheduled to open the season at Olney Theater later this month, only the groom perceives the change in his bride after her body is habited by the old man. The groom's confusion and sense of displacement is similar to what occurs in dreams, where things are often not what they seem.

Vogel relied heavily on dreams for "The Baltimore Waltz." "The whole play really takes place in a dream state, and very much the way that we dream, things change," she explained before the Baltimore opening. Although she wrote the play in response to her brother's death from AIDS, in the script, the sister is the one who's sick, and her illness is called Acquired Toilet Disease.

"The Baltimore Waltz" is one of the few AIDS plays by and about a woman, and Vogel says she began thinking about it while her brother was ill. Early on she realized she was working on it even in her sleep. She started paying special attention to her dreams and eventually incorporated material from them into the script.

Without delving too deeply into Freud, "The Baltimore Waltz's" most obvious fantasy element -- role reversal -- can be traced to several impulses, which also crop up in other second generation AIDS plays. Vogel herself acknowledges denial and survivor guilt, as well as a desire to "get an audience to identify with this disease and to see it in a different way." The similarity between these and some of the stages of dying chronicled by psychotherapist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is not coincidental; Vogel mentions Kubler-Ross in her script.

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Denial also figures prominently in "Angels in America," in which the character of Roy Cohn denies not only that he has AIDS, but also that he is homosexual. "Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men," Cohn tells his doctor. "Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout."

If you detect a note of absurdity in this, you are correct. Vogel draws a parallel between the new crop of AIDS plays and "the way you can see Theater of the Absurd as a response to the development of the atom bomb." In addition, she deliberately employed nonsense elements -- Acquired Toilet Disease, a stuffed rabbit whose exact significance is never explained -- as a way "to mirror the nonsense that we have made of this disease."

Nonsense is also, of course, a way to get around the stigma attached to AIDS. Interestingly, even "The Normal Heart" -- arguably the most confrontational of the first scripts -- didn't mention AIDS by name. Playwright Kramer has admitted he was "trying to universalize it," and that effort has been expanded in the more recent plays.

In the current off-Broadway hit, "Marvin's Room," a woman who has devoted her adult life to caring for her ailing father and aunt suddenly discovers she has leukemia. The playwright, Scott McPherson -- who has AIDS -- was reportedly disappointed when reviews of the Chicago debut failed to draw a connection to AIDS. And the connection is definitely there. So far, all of the second generation plays deal to one degree or another with the theme of living with death.

It's also interesting to note that homosexuality isn't mentioned in "The Baltimore Waltz," "Prelude to a Kiss" or "Marvin's Room." This is in sharp contrast to the earlier plays, in which politicizing the homosexual community appeared to be a major concern.

Now the focus as well as the style has broadened, and the result is a poignant and inescapable universality -- not merely the semantic effort Kramer made by not mentioning AIDS in "The Normal Heart." Whatever else the newer plays do or do not refer to -- whether they include stuffed rabbits or special-effects angels -- they all attempt to touch an audience through the shared experience of loss.

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And though many of these plays include comic passages -- comedy being not only the flip side of tragedy, but also a way to deal with pain -- the truth is that there is only one possible happy ending for this latest trend in playwriting: How wonderful it will be when AIDS has become such a distant memory that scholars look back at this body of work and are baffled by the impetus behind it.


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