Love + Science – Not Mutually Exclusive

Neither Matt (Matt Walker) nor Jeff (Jonathan Burke) are represented by parents at their medical school graduation. Matt’s mom sent “best wishes.” Jeff had been told “get outa my house you faggot” at 17. We learn this (as do the young men) within minutes of their meeting. Jeff, who seems the savvier and certainly more provocative man, is attracted to younger Matt who at 20 (he skipped grades) looks like innocence incarnate. History shows us otherwise.

Matt (Matt Walker), Jeff (Jonathan Burke), Thursday Farrar (Dr. Gold)

Matt is driven to research viruses ostensibly because a good friend died of cancer. (This could be better explained.) Apparently the orientation is an anomaly among medical students. He immediately devotes himself to a lab run by Professor Gold (Thursday Farrar). Jeff sees medicine as a human endeavor. He connects with people, not pure science. At this point, differences are no barrier. Later, the chasm will widen. They have sex and begin a relationship.

Set in New York City, 1981-2021, Love + Science begins couched in the AIDS crisis and ends with COVID, yet the play balances history with the very real story of a relationship. In the early 1980s homosexual men were beginning to suffer from what was called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Because the disease affected gay men (first), immigrants, intravenous drug users, and minorities, it was not a government priority. Public information was inaccurate and/or rare.

Jeff (Jonathan Burke), Matt (Matt Walker)

In San Francisco the first documented AIDS patient developed Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare, aggressive cancer linked with weakened immunity. Denial inevitably the first reaction, a gay Massachusetts-based doctor published an article titled “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.” Clusters of the disease started to appear in Los Angeles and New York. The CDC coined the term AIDS. Author/activist Larry Kramer, who would write The Normal Heart (Public Theater, 1985) held the first specific fundraiser and established Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMAC), an indispensable, non-profit community organization. Tony Kushner’s devastating Angels in America won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1991. The film Philadelphia educated a movie audience who went because of Tom Hanks’ everyman appeal.

The play refers to two cases elsewhere, then a patient with lesions shows up at St. Vincent’s where Matt and Jeff work. Our audience collectively recoils at the sight. How many attendees lived through the era, saw much worse, watched loved ones wither away? How many have not a clue of the plague’s severity and steadfast denial of its spread? In Love + Science, the patient, Gary (Adrian Greensmith), has been told nothing, an almost universal medical response during early days. Only men with a multitude of partners were thought to be carriers. Increasingly motivated, Matt dives into testing while Jeff turns to patients and the community.

Thursday Farrar (Dr. Gold), Matt Walker (Matt), Adrian Greensmith (Gary), Jonathan Burke (Jeff)

Matt backs away from sex with men. He responds to flirty grad student lab mate, Melissa (Imani Pearl Williams), and accepts a blind date with someone’s sister in order to avoid the threat of illness. During the latter, he’s called out and embarrassed. (Reasoning is particularly well written.) How many gay men hiding their true natures turned to women? When a test is formulated, Matt refuses, certain he must have it, unwilling to receive a death sentence. Jeff marches and volunteers at GMHC.

The disease swept through gay communities like wildfire. In New York, memorial services occurred daily. Lifelong partners were not allowed in hospital rooms because of the government’s outdated definition of marital rights. Entire hospital wings were cordoned off.

Matt Walker (Matt), Imani Pearl Williams (Melissa)

Gary dies. An early lover of Matt’s is admitted to the hospital. Matt is cold with diagnosis. Jeff criticizes his friend’s not offering hope. “It’s not a part of science, but it is a part of medicine.” The next year Matt and Jeff finally take blood tests. Both are negative. A door to physical intimacy reopens. Matt insists on regular testing. Jeff agrees. Each man pursues his own contributions with well honed skills. A young student asks Matt to get personally involved. It’s been 40 years. Will he?

Imani Pearl Williams (Melissa), Jonathan Burke (Jeff), Matt Walker (Matt)

They used to make fun of us for studying viruses they thought had no relevance to humans…they’re not laughing now.  (Professor Gold in the piece)

Playwright David J. Glass has had multiple works performed Off Broadway. “He is currently Vice President of Research at a biotech company and Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School where he teaches classes on how best to perform experiments and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University.”  (The program) The play’s verisimilitude comes from experience. We may never know whether Glass himself inspired Matt, observation of different approaches to healing intrigued him, or frustration rose to the surface during COVID. Watching Matt and Jeff navigate emotional and physical mine fields puts a human face on history that alas repeats itself. The story is sympathetic and coherent, moral without lecturing.

Director Allen MacLeod skillfully manages to keep actors in dramatic sightline with audience at three sides. Employing the unusual trope of Matt’s constantly changing his shirt which acts to separate episodes fluidly. The push-pull of physical touch is entirely believable. Timing is first rate. Characters are given time to absorb and reflect.

Both Matt Walker (Matt, an actor and scientist currently pursuing a PHD in genetics) and Jonathan Burke (Jeff) are excellent. As Matt, Walker exudes calm, thoughtful attention that seems to stand away from feelings without putting us off. Burke’s Jeff has charm, confidence, patience, and despite a proclivity for play, dignity.  An aura of mutual respect pervades even when at odds.

Imani Pearl Williams expertly inhabits Melissa’s flirty, idiosyncratic physicality and the cool girl attitude of Matt’s chiding blind date.

Also featuring: Ryan Knowles, Tally Sessions

Zoe Hurwitz’ ultra-minimal set (two rolling tables and a hospital bed) works in conjunction with very creative lighting and projection by Samuel J. Biondolillo and sound by Jane Shaw to manifest atmosphere and to date scenes.

Historically

Women began to get ill. When no one knew how the virus was passed, people of both proclivities took anonymous tests. Dating sites required proof of testing. The CDC disputed inaccuracies about transmission of the disease which nonetheless lingered for years. Not only would people not kiss, they wouldn’t touch. Imagine a loved one dying without physical human contact.

46th Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival CREATIVITY AND CRISIS: UNFOLDING THE AIDS MEMORIAL QUILT Program on the National Mall in Washington DC on Sunday afternoon, 8 July 2012 by Elvert Barnes Photography Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1985 our government called AIDS A “Top Priority,” but did little in terms of funding. The World Health Organization declared it the fourth-leading cause of death worldwide. In 2000, Congress authorized the first $350 million for the U.S. President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief.  In 2009, development of the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the U.S. was developed. Antiviral drugs were found improving and lengthening lives. At the end of December 2021, 28.7 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy, up from 7.8 million in 2010.

We made similar mistakes with COVID. How many people took the horse medicine Ivermetcin or Remdesivir, developed as a treatment for Ebola and Marburg viral infections, when then President Trump touted them for COVID? How many resist vaccination and masks? 1,101,208 Americans died of the most recent virus. “While deaths are at the lowest level since March 2020, COVID still takes the lives of a thousand people every week.” (The New York Times) Vaccines are being sought as I write. The importance of quick response, accurate information, and funded treatment can’t be overstated.

Photos by Emilio Madrid

Love + Science by  David J. Glass
Directed by Allen MacLeod

Through July 6, 2023
New York City Center Stage II

About Alix Cohen (1788 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.