Lips Together: Theater Silent as Queer Death Wish Intensifies

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By Mark Costello
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report
[email protected]

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Listen up, queers: past is prologue, so here’s a small dose of history to start our time together this week. Theater has been trying to find ways to deal with that big disease with a little name since it first arrived on the scene, all scary and awful, nearly 30 years ago. Consider Terrence McNally, who made a name for himself as a playwright largely by dealing with gay issues and the AIDS pandemic when other American masters (McNally’s former lover and superior talent in his own right Edward Albee, namely) opted not to. Perhaps it’s unfair to chalk McNally’s fame up to his willingness to bring gay back into the theater — perhaps it’s all the opera instead — but his work definitely speaks to a period in gay culture that we associate with the meth-filled bathhouse days of the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s.

Specifically, works like Lips Together, Teeth Apart and A Perfect Ganesh have the unknowable face of the AIDS phantom looming over the proscenium, a cultural icon of the early days of the pandemic when all we knew was that young gay men kept dying of opportunistic diseases that usually only carry the elderly and enfeebled into the afterlife. Lips Together was recently slated to be revived on Broadway with Megan Mullally and Patton Oswalt headlining but was canceled by the Roundabout Theatre Company after Mullally left the production, citing her unwillingness to work with the under-experienced Oswalt. Sick burn, Mullally.

We shouldn’t have needed to revive Lips Together, Teeth Apart in the first place, to be frank. While Lips Together is one of my favorite plays, I’d like to think that the spectral AIDS boogieman looming in the Fire Island swimming pool that serves as the central metaphor of the play and stage element is outdated. We’re light years ahead of where we were in AIDS research in the late 1980s and early ’90s, which is when Lips Together was written and first produced. Medication has evolved; sexual health programs have been developed; even some in the American porno industry have begun shunning talent specializing in bareback scenes. The ghost now has a face, the demon has been named-hell, we might even be close to an immunization.

If only. Life is rarely as simple as we’d like it to be and people will always screw themselves over when given the opportunity to preserve their health and sanity.

Case in point: the recent madness gripping Europe. Researchers at Belgium’s Ghent University have released the results of genetic profiling they’ve done on recent new incidences of HIV infection and found that Europe is trending toward a higher frequency of HIV subtype B — that’s the HIV not prevalent in Africa but rather among young white men in European cities. That’s the HIV rampaging through continental Europe and the U.K. owing to — you guessed it — bareback sex among men having sex with other men. These guys also have high incidences of syphilis and the clap, for that it’s worth.

The study found also that the existence of sexual health programs and easy access to STD testing and prevention materials have all fallen upon unresponsive, lethargic, deaf ears. Let’s admit a sad truth for a moment, then we’ll make it go away: sex with a condom can feel like making love through a glove. Given our druthers, we’d all go the Lady Godiva route: naked, bareback, oblivious, overjoyed.

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But here’s the reality: we still live in an age in which condomless sex is a courtship with death. And yes, we do know better now. In this decade, if you are HIV- and engage willingly in unprotected, casual sex, you’re welcoming the pandemic into your body. You don’t deserve sympathy if you blow your hand off playing with illegal fireworks. What do you deserve if your libido is so indefatigable that slipping on latex is beyond you? We, as a community of queers, are outsiders, marginalized as it is. You who spread the pandemic by ignoring the guidelines set forth by medical science and common sense are mass murderers, killing not just yourselves but the partners whom you knowingly — or worse, unknowingly — infect.

Much as I hate to admit it, the idea of reviving Lips Together was an apt move. It really shouldn’t be, you know: it is 2010; the work is 20 years old. But with McNally resigned to exploring his love for Maria Callas, we’re left without a new, galvanizing voice for the terrors of the gay experience in modernity; we lack a corrective, guiding voice in the American theater. We queers seem to have trouble handling ourselves in the present so we look back, pulling out the classic hits of our most recent golden boy while speeding, spiraling into self-destruction, offering a roadblock to mainstream acceptance at just the moment it’s within our grasp. Theater and the LGBT community hurt together and throb with the same pain; we’re left adrift in the same directionless tide, full of sound and fury, accomplishing nothing.

I say this genuinely: it’s a pain that’s unbearable. We cannot keep railing against those who hurt us from the outside when we rot ourselves from the inside. For Our Lady of Gagalupe’s sake, wrap it before you tap it. Otherwise we’ll have to endure more revivals starring Mullally, which I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.

A militant queer, Mark Costello is a playwright by trade who additionally writes for various outlets, including Phillyist and Patch.com. He holds an MA in Theatre from Villanova University. Follow him at twitter.com/markjcostello.