By Amita Parashar
Originally published on Advocate.com June 29 2009 12:00 AM ET
It was only natural that plays about HIV in the '80s and '90s reflected stories of death and the struggle for survival. He Asked for It isn't one of those plays. It is a play for a new generation dealing with that virus alongside life, love, and all their complications.
Thirty-one-year-old gay playwright Erik Patterson says he wanted the play to reflect a generation that finds it difficult to connect physically in the Internet age. "I couldn't have written this play 10 years ago," he says. He Asked for It recently opened its second run in Los Angeles, this time at the Macha Theatre in West Hollywood. The play's successful first run, at Los Angeles's Theatre of NOTE, earned it a 2009 GLAAD Media Award nomination.
He Asked for It is set in modern-day West Hollywood, oscillating between online chat rooms, the West Hollywood bar Fubar, and the gym -- where the audience first meets Ted (Joe Egender), a fresh-faced aspiring actor. Having just graduated from college in Laramie, Wyo. (where Matthew Shepard was fatally beaten -- no coincidences here), Ted expands his dating life in the city by meeting guys online, including hunky, HIV-positive Rigby, played by Andrew Keegan ( 10 Things I Hate About You ).
Ted meets Rigby in person and rejects the possibility of a relationship with him after he learns of Rigby's HIV status. But Ted soon falls in love with Henry (Jeremy Glazer), another chat room connection, and discovers he is also positive, which forces him to face an ethical dilemma. When Henry breaks up with Ted to protect him from the virus, Henry asks Rigby to infect him.
Rigby, who has a proclivity for barebacking and a fend-for-yourself attitude, agrees to give Ted what he "asked for" by sleeping with him. After his night with Rigby, Ted gets tested and finds out he is HIV-positive. Ted calls Henry with the news, only to hear that Henry has researched ways to keep him safe and wants to be with him regardless of his status. Henry is, of course, is baffled at Ted's act of desperation and self-harm and ends the relationship.
Director Neil Weiss, who also oversaw the play in its first run, says Ted's character strikes a chord with a younger audience. "People come to [Los Angeles] and are so desperate to find an identity, they'll turn themselves into anything they need to be to get what they think they want," he says.
Though Ted's choice to risk infection goes beyond rational judgment (one hopes), it raises tough questions surrounding the "how" and "when" of HIV status disclosure. The play speaks to a generation that, because it didn't live through the fear when HIV was first discovered, often feels either invincible in the face of the virus or removed from the reality of the disease.
Patterson, who developed the play over nearly four years, intended it to be a subtle nod to past plays about AIDS, such as Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Although he thinks these plays are very well written, "I'm not going to write that play," he says. "I didn't want to set any of the scenes in a hospital room, because that's not the world we live in right now. It's not 1980."
The audience maintains a connection to Ted's past through phone conversations with his younger sister, Sophie (Sarah Foret), his only tie to his family in Wyoming, from whom he is estranged. In the face of pressure from that family, his failed relationship with Henry, and his fledgling acting career (his homophobic, but ironically gay, agent is played by journalist Brian Unger, The Daily Show ), Ted's life completely unravels.
"The audience just falls in love with [Ted], and he breaks your heart," Weiss says.
Weiss says he pushed the actors to make themselves emotionally vulnerable, especially Keegan and Unger, who come from comedic backgrounds. The effort comes through in some very dramatic scenes, such as Ted's ultimate demise. "There are very dark colors to these characters," he says. "The actors were incredibly eager to go to those places."
The tough messages of the play, though, are interspersed with witty, easy dialogue. (Who wouldn't laugh at a typical West Hollywood gay checking himself out in a car's side mirror as he gets fucked in the gym parking lot? His mate spends the experience talking about Scientology.)
Eventually, the play's focus shifts to Rigby, as the seemingly guilt-free character starts to rethink his own life and relationship to his HIV status. Rigby is forced to confront his lack of responsibility around spreading the virus to Ted and others. His tough front falls away, and he becomes desperate for any sort of human connection. "It's something we're all kind of yearning for and craving," Patterson says.
The cast of seven creates an intimate space for the audience to enter the characters' lives completely. Patterson has accomplished quite a feat in writing play that tackles tough issues around HIV while getting his audience to intermittently roar with laughter. Even though this play is nothing like Angels in America , I daresay that Mr. Kushner would be proud.