Writer-actor Harvey Fierstein began his career doing monologues. The problem with "Safe Sex," three one-acts about AIDS, is that they're really less plays than monologues. Seldom do you feel Fierstein developing the relationships of characters. Mostly he's working the room.
Material about sickness, death and grief should be moving, but Fierstein short-circuits conventional emotional response.
In "Manny and Jake" a handsome young man (gracefully played by John Wesley Shipp) tries to seduce someone who reveals he is a carrier of AIDS, himself unscathed, bearing death to others. Seated as if in an Oriental ritual position, the carrier (John Mulkeen) speaks in the uninvolved voice of someone who has gone beyond guilt or despair into total detachment. The effect is not even to chill us, but to leave us oddly neutralized.
The longest of the three concerns the widow and lover of an AIDS victim trying to sort out his belongings after his death. Here Fierstein tries to voice the legitimate grievance of gay men ignored or shut out by confused, mourning families.
But he is not content to play his part simply as a wronged homosexual. Instead he creates a kind of monster-imitating Tallulah, doing double takes to the audience, lashing out in anger, playing an overprotective Jewish mother or an artless little boy. It is shtik, and it destroys sympathy.
As the widow, whose grievances are actually more intense than the lover's, Anne De Salvo is curiously unaffecting. She is not naturally a warm actress, but how can she be when she's playing against a clown?
The most successful of the three is "Safe Sex," in which a male couple who have been together a long time nervously approach sex. They stand on either end of a kind of cosmic seesaw, which frustrates their approaches to each other. The elegant set makes the whole situation witty.
During their talk Fierstein speaks about the "progress" of gay men from being social pariahs to medical pariahs. It is wistful, ironic, straightforward and the most touching part of the night.
Harvey Fierstein's new play "Safe Sex," which opened at the Lyceum Theater last night, seems to be a prime candidate to be either overpraised or undervalued.
Its approach to the AIDS health crisis is sensible, unhysterical, and above all, timely.
The unequivocal message - if this evening of three separate playlets can be said to have anything so portentous as a message - is a reminder from the homosexual community that AIDS results from "a virus we didn't get because we were gay, but because we are human."
The plays themselves suggest a gruyere cheese - some will praise the quality of the cheese, others will point out, with almost irrelevant truth, that it has holes in it.
The first of the playlets, "Manny and Jake," is unashamedly a curtain-raiser, surely intended as much to fill out the evening as to set out its theme.
It is an almost schematic, propagandistic encounter between two young men - one (John Mulkeen) praying for sex, the other (John Wesley Shipp) only too willing to provide it.
But it turns out that the first young man is a carrier of the AIDS virus, and therefore a sexual outcast, who now recalls in an incantatory way - his main aria starting: "Two grown men standing at a bar looking at each other" - the days when sex was safe, and "safe sex" unknown.
If the first play is somewhat solemn dialectic, the second, the title sketch called "Safe Sex," is at least in part very funny, although the humor has a gallows ring to it, for as Fierstein himself, playing one of the two characters, puts his plight: "I am frightened, I am angry, and I am alone."
Two recently reconciled male lovers (Shipp and Fierstein) are literally caught - in the second of John Falabella's resourceful and imaginative settings - on a symbolic seesaw, of which the designer takes more advantage than the playwright.
The proposition is that Fierstein, the matronly type, may be using the guidelines for safe sex as an excuse for his fading libido, to the disgust and disquiet of Shipp, who is a "blue-collar John Garfield type."
Much of the humor turns on the idea that homosexual attitudes - Fierstein cannot abide Shipp's sweaty version of personal hygiene - closely parallel those in a heterosexual relationship, an idea that might prove piquant and even surprising to more isolated or less thoughtful members of the Broadway audience.
Yet Fierstein's anger - never self-righteous - keeps breaking through with dramatic passion. Its very understatement, and its often wry expression, make it all the more authentic and telling.
Both of these sketches are hors d'oeuvre to the main course, which comes after the intermission, and is a full-scale one-act play, "On Tidy Endings."
It suffers somewhat from the fact that the two main characters are saints, albeit with dirty faces.
A man has died of AIDS. He leaves an estranged wife (Anne De Salvo), a son (Ricky Addison Reed), of whom he had custody, and a male lover (Fierstein).
The wife, who marries again after the divorce, still carries a torch for the dead man, and indeed when he briefly returned home to her after first contracting AIDS, she had hoped that he was hers until his inevitable death did them part.
But he moved on, and it was at this point - when he was already an AIDS victim - that he met Fierstein, who selflessly cared for him until he finally died in Fierstein's arms.
The Fierstein character clearly is a saint, and so, in a sense, is the woman, who seems to regard her successor with a remarkable lack of acrimony. Their attitudes are almost too good to be true, and although such attitudes are far from impossible, they lack the full potential for dramatic conflict.
Yet despite the rather cloying sentimentality of the piece (a sentimentality that can be underlined by imagining the antagonists both being women and the cause of the man's death nothing more untoward than a heart attack) it is occasionally sparkily illumined by glints of Fierstein's wicked and wonderful camp humor, and his gleaming humanity.
Both as a playwright and an actor Fierstein sometimes touches an asexual transcendency that makes any sexual preferences meaningless in the contest of simple human feeling - as when he here sums up his relationship with his dead lover in complaining to the wife: "You have a son and a life...leave me my intangible place in a man's history."
The staging of the evening by Eric Concklin seems efficient enough, although apart from Fierstein and a powerfully effective Miss De Salvo, the performances are not especially memorable.
It is easy to be patronisingly praising of Fierstein's insistent recognition of that universal humanity which crosses over all differences of sex - just as earlier generations of prejudice were surprised to note that all barriers of race and color were similarly made meaningless by seeing man simply as man.
Harvey Fierstein, playwright and actor, wants an audience to adore him. In ''Torch Song Trilogy,'' his breakthrough plays about a professional drag queen, and now in ''Safe Sex,'' a lumpy trilogy of one-act plays about the AIDS crisis, Mr. Fierstein pushes love - love for himself and, of course, love for all humanity. As a writer, he dreams of a world where everyone gets along: homosexuals and heterosexuals, women and men, adults and children. As a performer, he dreams of holding forth at center stage, getting every laugh with his bullfrog's voice, milking every tear with his wounded, over-the-hill torch singer's gaze.
By writing his own scripts, Mr. Fierstein can guarantee that at least the second of these dreams comes true. In ''Safe Sex,'' he appears in all but the opening segment, dominating the stage with an alacrity recalling the similarly voluminous and boisterous Zero Mostel. Like Mostel, he gets results. Dressed in a billowing nightshirt, Mr. Fierstein ignites roars of laughter by proclaiming his volatile erotic disposition - ''I've got two faucets, hot and cold!'' - with a self-mocking bravado worthy of Mae West. He induces tears later on, when, as the bereaved lover of an AIDS casualty, he shares a familial hug with the former wife and son that the dead man also left behind. Structured like ''Torch Song Trilogy'' - each successive play extends its protagonist's family - ''Safe Sex'' again hopes to leave us feeling that any character played by the author is the most humorous and generous friend, lover, mother, father or child that any sensitive person could ever hope to find.
If you found Mr. Fierstein adorable last time around, chances are you'll like him here, too. But one must still ask if this gifted artist's desire for approval - each of this bill's last two plays culminates in a sentimental embrace - really does serve him, the audience and his devastating subject. ''Safe Sex,'' which began as a modest workshop production at La Mama this winter, has arrived at Broadway's Lyceum Theater as a thronelike showcase for its star, burdened with a mostly amateurish supporting cast to keep histrionic competition at bay and a soppy, overblown staging to match the more treacly and self-indulgent excesses of the text. While it would be absurd to suggest that a dramatic treatment of AIDS need be as grim as a clinic, the immediacy of ''Safe Sex'' is often diffused by Mr. Fierstein's hugging and mugging, both as actor and playwright.
The evening is at its most forceful when its creator's anger burns through his other personas of saint and class clown. The bill's second (and titular) play, a literally seesawing comic squabble between two on-and-off-again lovers, suddenly drops its compulsive joke-making for a monologue describing what the homosexual community has lost and gained from the new heterosexual awareness (and fear) of AIDS. ''At last we have safe sex - safe for them,'' declares Mr. Fierstein at the end of an extraordinary speech describing two decades of American sociosexual history. As he does so, he looks into the audience, his voice and face quivering with rage, to challenge the conscience of any heterosexual who has latently decided to ''court'' homosexuals for selfish reasons alone.
In the closing play, ''On Tidy Endings,'' Mr. Fierstein is equally powerful when defending his ''intangible place'' in the history of the partner he had nursed until death. ''He died in my arms, not yours!'' he screams at his lover's patronizing ''first'' wife, who, though played with decency by Anne De Salvo, just can't stop herself from appropriating grief that is not primarily her own. Mr. Fierstein forgives her a little later in another beautifully written speech cataloguing his forlorn momentos from the international circuit of clinics and quacks for desperate victims of terminal disease.
The plays' funnier moments also seem to arrive when Mr. Fierstein forsakes his desire to please and lets off steam. The ''do's and don't's'' of ''safe sex,'' though serious business, spawn a comic, nostalgic riff about the days when a ''broken heart'' and ''crabs'' were among the harsher penalties for lovemaking. Yet for every joke that's to the point there are a half-dozen extraneous one-liners. As the middle play in ''Torch Song'' sometimes recalled Neil Simon's ''Chapter Two,'' so the second play this time offers a prefabricated insult duel between a sloppy jock and a prissy homemaker out of ''The Odd Couple.'' Even the mournful final play takes time out for irrelevant, formulaic jokes about Mr. Fierstein's excess weight (''Even my stretch socks have stretch marks!'') and urban gentrification.
Perhaps a tougher director than Eric Concklin could have convinced the author to strip away the evening's theatrical flab. The opening skit - in which Mr. Fierstein elects not to appear, presumably not without reason - is an entirely arch attempt to dramatize the plight of an AIDS-virus carrier in precious poetic incantations that might have been written by a high school personal-hygiene instructor. In the better efforts that follow, Mr. Concklin accentuates the writing's failings with a production that sometimes seems a parody of the mishaps that can befall a play that spares no tasteless expense in ''going Broadway.''
Not the least of the evening's misguided accouterments is a cloud-streaked set, designed by John Falabella and bathed in scarlet sunsets by Craig Miller, that seems to place all three plays in the curdled Technicolor heaven of a second-rung M-G-M musical. In league with Ada Janik's pushily elegiac incidental music, the physical production sanitizes and perfumes the entire evening - as if the stage had been sprayed with a tank of air freshener. At his most courageous, Mr. Fierstein doesn't need these or any of the evening's other artificial sweeteners. ''Safe Sex'' finds its life when it lashes out with a ferocity to match the plague.