The playwright William M. Hoffman‘s As Is remains an iconic example of 1980s drama, written in the withering heat of the AIDS crisis (well, the first wave, anyway). After an Off-Broadway run, it transferred with much fanfare to Broadway in 1985, amid a great stirring of emotion within the LGBT community and, in certain quarters, some political debate. After all, let’s remember that President Ronald Reagan didn’t actually use the word AIDS or say a single word referring to the crisis until May 31, 1987. The radical-right today can deify the 40th president all it wants, but it’s an indisputable fact that tens of thousands of Reagan’s countrymen died due to the fellow’s not-so-compassionate conservatism. Their deaths will stain Reagan’s legacy so long as there is any remote legacy to stain.
Upon reflection, perhaps the legacy of the play isn’t as easy to characterize as I’ve suggested. Indeed, the Apple Core Theater Company‘s current revival of the play ought to occasion a reexamination of the work, which concerns a man who is HIV-positive and his ex-lover who arrives by the man’s side at precisely the hour of need. As Is won Hoffman the 1986 Obie for Distinguished Playwriting, the Drama Desk Award for Best Play and the Broadway production was up for three Tonys — Best Play, Best Actor (the graceful Jonathan Hogan) and Best Director (the matchless Marshall W. Mason). Many people thought it should have won Best Play at the Tonys, but the competition was tough that year, with Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues coming out on top, besting David Rabe’s Hurlyburly and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This was when American plays used to be produced on Broadway. We don’t have that problem now.
But back to the legacy question. It seems to me it’s not so much whether As Is holds up — a discussion good for little — but asking what function the play serves in the world of 2010, a time when HIV and AIDS couldn’t be more clearly a global pandemic, but when the percentage of LGBT-related AIDS deaths is smaller, as a proportion of the whole, than in 1985; a time when treatments for HIV and AIDS outstrip even the most expansive hopes of the As Is generation. Following such questions we may ask others: Is the play arguably a cautionary tale? Was it ahead of its time or — well, here we go — of its time? Is it a gay play? What, then or now, is a play gay? Does As Is bear little relationship to notions of gay or straight or whatever, and instead emblematic of the unstinting power of love? Is the As Is audience the same as in 1985? Who should it be now? Who decides? Who knows?
Frankly, when Hoffman was offered to the CFR as a 5 Questions subject, I thought it a good chance to weigh such questions and maybe, with prompting, to whip up some of that old time dramatic magic. As you’ll see, Hoffman apparently prefers to be extremely laconic. His prerogative.
Directed by Walter J. Hoffman (no relation), As Is features Jeff Auer, Emily King Brown, Jason Griffith, Brian Hopson, Jessica Luck, Todd Michael, Ryan Stadler and David Zwiers. The production runs through Oct 31 at the Studio Theatre on Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.). For tickets or more information, click here or click here or call 212-239-6200.
And now, 5 questions William M. Hoffman has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“While your play deals with life and death issues and your characters are often emotionally overcharged, why does your play seem to be on an even keel?”
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Weren’t you afraid of interviewing people with AIDS and catching their disease?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Weren’t you afraid of ruining your career by writing about gay people and their disease?”
4) As the AIDS crisis enters its third decade, do you agree with the assertion that there has been a drop-off in the volume of AIDS-oriented plays? If you do, who is at fault? (If you do not, why not?)
I think there has been a drop off because of the sheer glut of plays on the subject. While I think there is always room for a good new play, I think the competition by now is extremely stiff.
5) With LGBT-related teen suicides cresting in the news, what is the American theater’s responsibility to fight self-loathing from within and to combat hate from without? Are there ways in which you feel the American theater has let down the LGBT community?
I believe that the best way for the theater to help the LGBT community is to write stirring new plays about the community. I don’t think that propaganda plays written to combat self-loathing will help, unless they don’t seem like propaganda plays at all. I think it would be helpful to commission plays about LGBT youth from the theater community (LGBT and straight, younger and older). I don’t believe the American theater has let down the LGBT community. The theater has provided America with a vast quantity of GLBT material. More of it should just be about youths and for youths.
6) Are there any aspects of As Is that you wish you had addressed differently in 1985? If there are none, what is one unexpected reaction you are hoping for with this production?
I am hoping that audiences will be able to view the play as a play as well as an historical document on the theme of AIDS.