Review: Love + Science Equals Hope and Anguish in the Time of Plague

David J. Glass’s AIDS drama makes its debut off-Broadway.

Jonathan Burke and Matt Walker star inDavid J. Glass’s Love + Science, directed by Allen MacLeod, at New York City Center Stage II.
(© Emilio Madrid)

AIDS feels like a distant memory in the rich world. Advances in antiretroviral treatment mean that people with HIV can live “undetectable” into old age. And the availability of PrEP has allowed gay men with health insurance to pursue the kind of guilt-free sex lives last enjoyed in the hedonistic 1970s. Those little jars of condoms once ubiquitous at the door of every bar in Hell’s Kitchen have mostly vanished.

Of course, these trends paper over the fact that people still die of AIDS every day, including people in New York City. The survivors of that plague walk among us, carrying emotional scars that no amount of Pride Month (when did it become a whole month?) fanfare will ever salve. David J. Glass reminds us of them in his new drama Love + Science, now playing at New York City Center Stage II. Seemingly a relic from another era, it puts into perspective the panic and paranoia of our most recent plague by telling the story of two gay doctors entering their profession at the dawn of the last one.

Matt (Matt Walker) and Jeff (Jonathan Burke) meet at a white coat ceremony for Columbia med students in 1981 (an anachronism as the white coat ceremony wasn’t a thing until the ’90s). The attraction is instant — solidified when Jeff discovers Matt conversing with his mentor, a virologist named Diane Gold (a no-nonsense yet nurturing Thursday Farrar).

“Most med students aren’t interested in research at all,” Jeff informs him, lust percolating in his eyes. “They don’t seem to understand that the only way to cure diseases that have no treatments is to actually study them… to do basic research… You’re unusual.”

That’s true in more ways than one. Although Matt carries himself like a Mormon missionary (Walker’s rigid posture and Vulcan-like line delivery tell this story), he once had a secret life as a shot boy at Studio 54. His disco days become a source of lingering dread as a new disease emerges among gay men. In this time of plague, Jeff and Matt struggle to balance their Apollonian calling as doctor-scientists and the Dionysian impulse that lives in the heart of every gay man. If you thought the year we spent waiting for a Covid vaccine was agony, imagine waiting six years for a reliable HIV test.

Thursday Farrar, Matt Walker, Adrian David Greensmith, and Jonathan Burke appear in David J. Glass’s Love + Science, directed by Allen MacLeod, at New York City Center Stage II.
(© Emilio Madrid)

Glass, who is a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School and Vice President of research at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (which played a bit part in the Covid saga), brings an extraordinary level of expertise to his dramaturgy, with characters discussing DNA, RNA, and protease structure with the casual ease one might reserve for brunchtime chatter. He holds up for ridicule a professor who hypothesizes that GRID (the earlier name for AIDS, before it was widely accepted as a virus) is caused by a surfeit of semen in the rectum (Tally Sessions makes a meal out of this role and several other bite-size parts). And when Matt, Jeff, and Dr. Gold go in search of the real culprit by questioning an actual patient (Adrian David Greensmith), it all feels like an episode of Law & Order: CDC (Walker, with his prairie-dry delivery, is the Sam Waterston).

This aspect of the story clearly stimulates Glass far more than the on-again-off-again romance between Matt and Jeff, for which Burke valiantly provides all the heat. We never quite understand what he sees in Matt, but we know that for a guy as charming as him to wait for Matt to get over his internalized homophobia, it must be true love. This surely isn’t the case for Nicky, the ex-boyfriend who dumps Matt early in the play (Ryan Knowles uses this small part to deliver the most emotionally impactful performance of the evening).

Imani Pearl Williams gives a surprise standout performance as Melissa, a grad student coming up behind Matt in the lab. She imbues every line with warmth and humor, so it seems obvious why Matt is much likelier to listen to her rather than Jeff, even though they’re telling him the same thing.

Tally Sessions, Ryan Knowles, and Matt Walker appear in David J. Glass’s Love + Science, directed by Allen MacLeod, at New York City Center Stage II.
(© Emilio Madrid)

Allen MacLeod directs the production with an efficiency that somewhat compensates for the occasional inertia of the script. Zoë Hurwitz’s simple, sterile set facilitates the cinematic construction of the scenes (I particularly appreciated the Price Is Right door in the upstage wall). Samuel J. Biondolillo’s ugly neon lighting and projections conjure a seedier New York of yesteryear, while Camila Dely’s costumes remind us of the torture that denim has endured in pursuit of fashion. Sound designer Jane Shaw impressively executes some heavy lifting as a storyteller in the scene transitions, with sound collages that carry the narrative forward two, three, and (in the final sequence) 34 years.

That final leap proves to be too much for Love + Science. Glass clearly wants to tie that plague to our most recent one, but by gliding over the ’90s (the period in which AIDS deaths reached their peak in the US), he shortchanges his story, leaving us to speculate about how three decades of progress on AIDS and gay rights changed our characters (if at all). The play ends on an unresolved note, which may be truthful in a society that hasn’t come to a healthy accord with disease and death. Unfortunately, that authenticity makes for an unsatisfying, unfinished-feeling drama.

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Love + Science

Closed: July 6, 2023