John D'Arcangelo and Robert Resnikoffin Masquerade(Photo © Joan Marcus)
John D'Arcangelo and Robert Resnikoff
in Masquerade
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Perceptions of AIDS have changed considerably in the last two and a half decades. "It's had its due," says a character in Brian C. Petti's Masquerade. "It's terrified enough people." The playwright here examines the different attitudes towards the disease held by different generations of gay men, a subject that's timely and ripe for theatrical exploration. Unfortunately, Masquerade is poorly written, and the production makes the work's flaws even more apparent.

Set in the present-day East Village, the play centers around Hersh (Robert Resnikoff) and Mario (John D'Arcangelo), an older HIV-negative gay male couple who lived through the worst of the epidemic, losing scores of loved ones to AIDS. Their younger friend, Doug (Ryan Murray), has recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Another young friend, Rodolfo (Dan Domingues), suggests that the couple throw Doug a surprise "Positive Party" -- not to celebrate his new infection but to demonstrate that, despite his change in serostatus, Doug still has much to be thankful for and should be "positive and proud."

Hersh cannot understand why Doug's HIV-infection should be commemorated in this manner; he believes that the gay community has adopted too cavalier an attitude toward AIDS. At the party, Rodolfo outlines a different position, stating, "A hell of a lot of people would like to catch it [HIV] early rather than worry about it all the time." It's not that they want to get AIDS, but they feel their lives as gay men are unduly restricted by the safer sex guidelines that have become expected of them.

While the conflicts between the characters are provocative, they come across more as position statements than true-to-life dialogue. The play also includes several melodramatic turns that weaken its believability. For instance, since Doug was unaware that he was being thrown a party, he brings along his mother (Cam Kornman) in the hope that Hersh and Mario can help him explain to her his newly diagnosed condition. He gets his wish in a more public fashion than he anticipated, and the revelation scene plays out in a rather cheesy way that undermines the seriousness of the moment. After Doug makes his confession, his mother turns swiftly away from him toward the audience, her hand coming up to her mouth in a stereotypical portrayal of shock.

Director Mary Geerlof tends to go for obvious staging that indicates emotions rather than helping the actors to be "in the moment." Most of the cast members seem quite wooden, although Brian Linden as the late-arriving Peter adds much-needed theatrical energy to the proceedings. Still, the pacing of most of the production is far too slow, with enough pauses to kill the action.

The party for Doug has the theme "favorite authors," which partly explains the play's title. Most of the partygoers arrive in costume, and Dennis Ballard's designs for these fit the historical figures that are referred to as well as the individual characters who wear them. Hence, Rodolfo arrives in a sexy, swordsman outfit as Miguel de Cervantes while the self-conscious Hersh is clad in vaguely Elizabethan garb as Shakespeare. Michael Allen's set is likewise impressively rendered; the designer completely transforms the black box space into a handsome apartment, complete with kitchen.

But strong design elements can't save this production. It might help to cut the intermission, as it only serves to create a loss of momentum; there's no need to take a break after only 40 minutes, especially when the entire show would run about an hour and a half if played straight through. Even if the intermission were excised, however, substantial fixes in the writing, acting, and directing would also be needed to make Masquerade into something more than just an interesting idea.