Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Kevin and his now-deceased partner were militant activists during the early years of the plague, and the partner was one of the founders of an agency established to provide services and support to AIDS patients. But when he learns an upcoming anniversary gala will honor all the founders except his ex, he springs into action and makes an appointment to see Byron (J. Conrad Frank), the new executive director of the agency. But his pitch appears to fall on deaf ears, as Kevin's ex was apparently quite the firebrand, whose tacticshowever effectivewere a little too radical to suit the taste of the current board of directors. Though Kevin has the support of his friends Marcus (William Giammona) and Susan (Desiree Rogers), they've lost the fire they once had for The Cause, at least to the intensity with which Kevin still carries the flame.
If you're a fan of catty dishing, here are many funny moments in Still at Risk. The biggest laugh of the night comes with the punchline, "Your friend Hannah Montana?" but several other of playwright Tim Pinckney's best bon mots elicited strong laughter from the audience, so there is clearly enough entertainment here to satisfy many. Pinckney is skilled at writing dialogue that is naturalistic yet still theatrical, a talent that is unfortunately hard to find.
Sadly, Pinckney's editing skills aren't nearly so sharp, as the play goes on far too long, pounding its message of "don't forget!" with the relentless force of a jackhammer. Winston Churchill (among others) has been credited with apologizing for the length of a letter by saying, "I didn't have time to write a shorter one." Pinckney needs to spend a bit more time looking for ways to deliver his admittedly important message in a more concise waywithout losing the cleverness and loving bitchiness that is working well.
The production is also weighed down by flat performances from most of the cast, and an almost complete lack of chemistry among them. J. Conrad Frank's Byron wouldn't look out of place in front of a mirror, chanting "who's the nelliest queen of all?" He minces and sashays as if he is playing his usual stage persona, local drag queen Katya Smirnoff-Skyy, instead of a powerful, well-connected PR expert. A little gravitas would not only go a long way toward tempering the gay clichés, it would also reinforce that nelly queens can be powerful and effective advocates.
Apart from Desiree Rogers (who exhibits both a natural ease on stage and a lovely sense of comic timing) the cast declaim their lines more than they acted them. Anger and rage are expressed through an increase in volume and pace, rather than coming from an emotional core. There is plenty of dynamic range in terms of loudness, but little in terms of natural emotion. Marcus and Kevin feel more like actors at an audition than longtime friends with a fraught history. As Christopher, the well-heeled donor helping fund the gala, Matt Weimer brings a Southern accent that sounds like Björk auditioning for a Tennessee Williams play.
It is vitally important we never forget the history of the AIDS crisis, or the sacrifices made by those who put their lives and careers on the line to fight it. I wish I could say the same about this production of Still at Risk.
Still at Risk, through February 25, 2018, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $20-$45, and can be purchased at NCTCSF.org or by calling 415-861-8972.