In the canon of AIDS literature, Tim Pinckney’s Still at Risk (at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Feb. 25) is a timely call to arms and a minor work of art. It lacks the historical sweep of Edmund White’s novel The Farewell Symphony and the rhetorical heft and lyricism of plays like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Pinckney’s decision to omit Eric, an ACT UP activist who died of AIDS, leaves a blank space in the center of the play. Although we hear several anecdotes about him from the other characters, especially from his longtime companion Kevin (Scott Cox), on stage Eric’s outline is never filled out.
After a decade has passed, Kevin still hasn’t recovered from the trauma of Eric’s death. He’s angry, anguished and unable to move forward with his personal or professional life. When Pinckney introduces Kevin to the audience, it’s obvious he’s a mess. He arrives at his friend Marcus’ (William Giammona) apartment after having fallen down in a nearby alley. His clothes are filthy, torn and stained. Marcus is a successful TV actor who’s grown used to the chaos in Kevin’s life. But even he is starting to lose patience with his old friend’s inability to move on.
After borrowing some clean clothes from Marcus, Kevin heads out for a meeting with Byron (J. Conrad Frank), a circumspect development officer at the Manhattan AIDS Project. Eric, it turns out, was one of that organization’s original founders. At an upcoming anniversary gala that Byron is putting together, he’s planning to honor all of the founders — except for Eric, who published some controversial articles before his death. Kevin hears about this slight and feels compelled to see if he can convince Byron to acknowledge Eric’s contributions to the cause.
At first, Pinckney leads us to believe the central confrontation of the story will be generational. That Kevin, who watched so many of his friends die from AIDS, will complain that gay millennials, like the accomplished Byron, can’t comprehend the scale of what men like him have lost. They have options to treat their unsafe sexual experiences. And, even if they do contract HIV, the disease is no longer fatal. But this turns out to be a red herring.
Still at Risk doesn’t hinge on Byron’s blasé attitude or his suspected indifference to Kevin’s plea. Instead, there are two subplots charged with heavier emotional weight, but both are truncated. One concerns a character seroconverting. The other involves Christopher (Matt Weimer), Eric’s last partner. We find out Eric left Kevin for Christopher a few months before he (Eric) died. The reason he did so, at least according to Christopher — Kevin wouldn’t let Eric top him because of the disease. Christopher also suggests that Kevin didn’t want to care for Eric as he got sicker.
These explanations infuriate Kevin. Are they true or is Christopher just inciting him? The audience has a problem in trying to identify with Kevin, the protagonist. We have a one-sided sense of what their relationship looked and sounded like. If we’d had even one scene between them, a flashback from the past, it would have helped to identify Kevin as a plausible or as an unreliable narrator. Without that information, it feels like all that Sturm und Drang is only alive in his own mind, disconnected from Eric, that what he tells us could be misremembered, false or simply imagined.
By absenting Eric from the play, Pinckney does allow enough space for viewers to project their own lost loved ones onto the stage. It was such an effective technique that it left several people in tears. But if the inclusion of a seroconversion story was meant to send a message, that there still isn’t a cure for AIDS, it was tidied up too quickly and too easily. The psychological toll of survivor’s guilt was omnipresent in Kevin’s story. But the psychological toll of becoming HIV-positive — that was strangely dampened out.
Still at Risk, through Feb. 25, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. $35-$45; 415-861-8972 or nctcsf.org