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Love + Science

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 4, 2023

Jonathan Burke and Matt Walker
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Well, it's one way to kick off Pride Month. Love + Science, David J. Glass's drama now at City Center Stage II, recalls the whole horrible 1980s mishandling of the emerging AIDS crisis, as seen principally through the eyes of two idealistic medical students turned researchers. Glass's intentions are unimpeachable, and he brings to life a lot of uncomfortable moments we'd rather have forgotten, and may have. But Love + Science–why the + instead of an and?–is curiously unemotional, given all the torment we're reliving.

On Zoe Hurwitz's rather sterile set, new med students Matt (Matt Walker, something of a stiff, but so is the character) and Jeff (Jonathan Burke, flouncier than he has to be) meet cute. It's 1981, "the best time in the history of humanity to be gay," as Jeff puts it. Matt at first seems a charmer. A deception: He'll turn out to be, though our hero, an exacting, judgmental, dour presence, with a temper. Jeff's the live-for-the-moment guy, into parties and sex and porn houses. Matt started working at Studio 54 when he was 16 (really?); now that it's reopening, he stops in to see Steve Rubell (Tally Sessions, convincing in several roles), who's doing blow at his desk and not looking well. Something's up.

What really excites Matt is medical research, and that leads Glass down a long alley of interminable medical jargon. Walker, who's also a scientist in real life, dispenses it fluently, but it's more than we need to know or are likely to understand: sample dialogue, "I'm working on the proteins p12 and p15 of the Gag-Pol locus in the Moloney virus to see what those two proteins do." Anxious to make a difference in the evolving world of retroviruses and cancers, he talks his way into the laboratory of Diane (Thursday Farrar, earnest and appealing, but tripping over a couple of lines), a leading virologist. What timing! For not only is Jeff also working in the lab, leading the two to pursue a romance I'm not quite buying, but a mysterious, lethal virus is starting to hit sexually active gay men on both coasts.

And we're down a path of science, a lot of it, and relationships that don't always add up. Jeff and Matt go from adversaries to uneasy friends to lovers in an unconvincing blink. (They also take their clothes off repeatedly, not a bad thing.) As the numbers of what is first called Gay Related Immune Deficiency scarily multiply, Matt experiments with going hetero, unsuccessfully. A new research assistant, Melissa (a likable Imani Pearl Williams), joins the fight and provides a sympathetic shoulder for an increasingly unhinged Matt.

Good scenes happen. Several, in fact: Matt straight-dates a supercilious Brit, who's on to him immediately and dresses him down for the possibility he'll spread this virus to the other side. Matt, Jeff, and Diane visit an early AIDS patient (Adrian David Greensmith), who's sweet and scared. Melissa, having observed that Matt hasn't so much as touched anyone for years, though he's also done something incredibly stupid and self-destructive that again I'm not buying, offers him a hug.

But these people don't really come alive. There are contradictions in their characters: Matt's decency and officiousness vs. the destructive things he does in not-infrequent states of rage and sarcasm. Jeff's party-boy persona vs. his diligence in the lab. Nick (Ryan Knowles), an ex of Matt's, dismisses him cruelly at Studio 54 but turns into a lamb several unlucky years later. Allen MacLeod's direction uncertainly negotiates the changes in tone, and neither he nor Walker can help us make up our minds about Matt: Are we supposed to like him? Camilla Dely's costumes offer a parade of unfortunate '80s fashion, and Samuel J. Biondolillo at least lights Hurwitz's bare-bones set expertly, from the riotous color of an '80s club to the cold light of a St. Vincent's hospital room.

I put in three years at Gay Men's Health Crisis in the late '80s. It was awful: The limited resources, the terror of waiting for test results, the utter silence of the Reagan White House, the segments of society that felt those fags deserved what they were getting, the befriending of clients you knew were going to suffer and perish. But the feeling was, well, nobody's going to help us, this is our battle, let it be our tour of duty in an unpopular war. Some of that comes through in Love + Science, and those who lived through those years may feel bittersweet pangs of recognition as Matt and Jeff wonder if it's safe to kiss, if they should get an HIV test, if AZT will work. Those who didn't need to know about it, so let's thank Glass for that.

There have been great AIDS plays: Angels in America, of course, and The Inheritance trod similar ground with assurance, and The Normal Heart, even if much of it seemed to be Larry Kramer screaming that he was right and nobody would listen to him, had passion. That's lacking here. And Glass might have done a more effective job if he'd spent more effort on consistent characters to root for, and less time on dialogue like, "It would be interesting to see their specificity assays–maybe those proteins will pull down other antibodies." Capsule review: What Love + Science could use is more love and less science.

Love + Science
Through July 6, 2023
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St., New York NY
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