AIDS Shouldn't Feel This Good

The Last Session rocks in a powerful, poignant Laguna staging

We're sick of AIDS. Sick of people getting AIDS. Sick of people dying from AIDS. Sick of worrying about getting AIDS. Sick of hearing about Magic Johnson's AIDS. Sick of news about AIDS treatments. Sick of hearing Christians blame AIDS on sin. Sick of hearing gay militants blaming AIDS on the government. We're sick of seeing Tom Hanks with a shaved head and AIDS in Philadelphia. We're sick of books, articles and seminars about AIDS. And we're really, really sick of AIDS in the theater. Sure, there's beautiful irony in the fact that a deadly disease has produced some of the most brilliant, politically charged art of the past 20 years-Tony Kushner's Angels in America is the most obvious example. But it has also produced a spate of plays that seem to exist solely because they are Plays About Living With AIDS.And then comes a show like The Last Session, now making its West Coast premiere through Oct. 11 at the Laguna Playhouse. It's a show about a man living with AIDS-a man who's about to kill himself because of AIDS-but it paints its portrait in such emotionally compelling and really funny terms that it succeeds where so many AIDS-themed plays fail. Gideon, the man at the center of The Last Session, is a real person, not a martyr-not a symbol. He doesn't wear his diagnosis as a badge of honor; he doesn't wallow in self-pity. He's tired of living in pain, tired of causing his friends grief. He's ready to take action. He's ready to die. The fact that The Last Session includes 10 songs (many of which are outstanding) makes its roaring success all the more unbelievable-and convincing. I came to the theater expecting shameful manipulations; I was fully expecting a ride that would pass all of the familiar landmarks: sadness for AIDS victims, reflections on the fragility of life, joy for the struggle of life amid bleakest desperation. The fact that I was shamefully manipulated-and enjoyed nearly every moment of it-makes this a very special show indeed. The Last Session was written and is directed by Jim Brochu, with music and lyrics from Steve Schalchlin, whose online diary (www.bonusround.com) of his battle with AIDS has developed a cult following of sorts over the past few years. Gideon (Bob Stillman)-a former gospel singer turned pop star turned outed homosexual turned has-been-has gathered three of his musician friends for one last recording session in an LA studio (designed to great gray-walled effect by Don Gruber). His friends include Jim (P.M. Howard), the surly engineer; Tryshia (Michele Mais), the larger-than-life black diva, who looks (and sings) like she just walked out of central casting; and Vicki (Amy Coleman), Gideon's boozing, tough-as-plastic former wife-they were married back in the days when she was the only one who knew Gideon was gay. Gideon's friends think he's finally reclaiming his career. In reality, the evening is the last page of an orchestrated suicide. The recording session, dedicated to Gideon's longtime lover, will be Gideon's last communication. He plans on offing himself the next day. The entrance of Buddy (Joel Traywick) introduces the necessary conflict. Buddy is a good ol' boy from Texas who is decked out in ass-cheek-tight electric-blue polyester pants; he praises Jaysus one minute and works on crossing over from the gospel market into the pop charts-just as Gideon did 10 years before-the next. When Buddy learns that Gideon has full-blown AIDS, his idol is unmasked as "a fag," and he suddenly finds himself surrounded by the loose-moraled hedonists momma always warned him about. The conflict between Buddy and Gideon allows Brochu to get in his licks over the "issue" of whether a gay person can be a Christian. I only wish his Buddy wasn't so damn bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so adamant and ignorant about his convictions. The ideological debate would carry far more weight if Buddy (who is a very likable, even heartwarming character in Traywick's hands) didn't seem like a cliche and had genuine religious convictions based on reflection rather than reaction; we already know the Old Testament admonitions on homosexuality, which Buddy quotes by rote. Without more gravitas in his theologica, Buddy is a Christian straw man. Making him smarter might work-is there anything more frightening than an intelligent bigot? Of course, a more cerebral Buddy wouldn't be nearly as fun, and that's the operative word for this show, quite an accomplishment in a story surrounded by death and disease. This is a flat-out entertaining show that captures highs as well as lows. You can thank Brochu's very witty script and Schalchlin's remarkable score for that. Schalchlin's music draws on gospel and R&B, but for the most part, his melodies are straight out of adult-contemporary 1990s pop. In the wrong context, the adult-contemporary feel of the songs might sound as bad as, well, adult contemporary. Not in the theater, however, where most songs sound like they were produced 50 years ago in some vast, sound-alike Broadway factory; any music in a musical that actually sounds contemporary is a relief. That doesn't mean all the songs in The Last Session are ascending the charts with a bullet. "The Preacher and the Nurse" felt like it didn't belong somehow, and "When You Care," the obligatory ebullient curtain-closer, veered too close to the cheap, easy sentiment of "From a Distance." Others, however, border on extraordinary. Reprising his New York role, Stillman drives this show. He's got a multifaceted voice and plays wicked keyboards. On ballads like "Connected" and "Save Me a Seat," Stillman's voice is heartbreaking. On "(At Least) I Know What's Killing Me," he's capable of Southern-fried gospel and keyboards to make Jerry Lee Lewis proud. Mais' Tryshia and Traywick's Buddy also have exceptionally strong voices. Coleman, the best actress onstage, has the most limited voice, and her compensatory physical histrionics grow old. If the show goes awry anywhere, it's in the second act. Up to this point, there has been none of the let's-drop-everything-we're-doing-and-sing-a-song routine that makes the musical such an inherently silly form. There are threats in the second act, however, that a real musical is about to break out. In "Friendly Fire," war images are projected on the back wall, and the characters dress up in military fatigues. The perfunctory choreography gets in the way of an engaging song that makes the point that drug combinations taken by people who are HIV-positive often do more harm than good. But these are minor criticisms in a show that does so much so well. Like any effective piece of art, The Last Session transcends what it's talking about and embraces the universal. By the time the show ended and the four leads were belting out their last notes, I didn't want them to leave. They felt like old friends. And, for one of the few times I can remember in the theater, my first thought when the lights went dark wasn't getting to my feet and heading for the exit; it was rising to my feet and joining in on a much-deserved standing ovation.The Last Session at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (714) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Oct. 11. $31-$38.

 
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