(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Victor Bumbalo’s Adam and the Experts is a useful piece of theater. As I watched this play, directed by Shaun Loftus, at first it seemed to me that the material had already been covered five to ten years ago in movies like Parting Glances and Longtime Companion. The the overwhelming and sickening fact of how long AIDS deaths have been occurring struck. The trauma is relentless.
Content, specifically in this case, the message that horrible death tolls aren’t likely to be over for quite a while, often overrides misgivings about imperfections in art forms, like whether it’s been said or done before, or even enough for that matter. Also depicting pieces of reality triggers things far deeper than merely witnessing the work, because you can’t avoid carrying the issues out into the street, into your life.
Playwright Victor Bumbalo’s attempts to balance this equation make it an entertaining yet dicey evening for the viewer. Adam’s strong suit is the way in which many scenes are excellently shuffled together to form a pastiched of gay AIDS experiences. Free-floating conversations seem accurate composites of us and our friends.
The best vignettes are almost all of Adam (Steve Sutherland) dragging Eddie (Stephen Frugoli), his sick friend around to all the experts to find a cure – or at the very least, the hope of one. Adam’s grappling with his paranoia, confusion and powerlessness over AIDS in his best friend’s body is what the play is about. It’s his internalization of the meaning of the virus embodied by others. You could call it his decentered experience.
The scathingly humorous and exhausting quack-a-thon that ensues when Adam makes the rounds of the AIDS landscape is epitomized by Brandon Nash’s portrayals of the resistant psychologist, the god/body-phobic priest, an ig-Nobe prize ozone doctor, a self-help Louise Hay-sian fascist guru, a very needy support buddy, and a frank dad. These avowed experts, at least in Adam’s mind, provide the various sits along his winding pilgrimage. The convention of one performer (Nash) assuming the various masks of questionable authority powerfully undermines each desperate search for control by Adam to externalize and remake his world in crisis.
The play’s weakest aspect is the plodding progression of narratives related to Eddie’s slow death. Acting and message often become heavy-handed throughout the story line of a small group of friends – Adam, Eddie, Jim and Sarah – coping with diagnosis while steadily making their way toward the inevitable finale. Bumbalo often clobbers us with that extra sentence or imminently cued up next step.
The most powerful acting is done by Rebecca Beardsley as an accompanying Ensemble Woman, playing Aunt Melissa, Mama Mata, and mom. Since she sets the peaks, the rest of the performances are almost geared by her presence.
For any faults it may have, Adam and the Experts is the kind of story that interestingly asserts itself by subtly unveiling mixed claims about expertness – either as false authority, or an opening for the healing quality of basic human compassion. We’re offered an entire spectrum, and since it’s about choices, this play seems like an offering, a map by which you can decide.