Review: Safe Sex, VAULT Festival

“Whatever happened to sex being fun?” is the line at the centre of this story from the height of the AIDs crisis in New York. Safe Sex is the story of two lovers arguing over a precautionary list of sexual do’s and don’ts, with the more macho, mustachioed figure (George White) claiming that his more sensitive boyfriend (Samuel Neal) only wished to follow the rules out of a desire to avoid intimacy altogether. 

The story’s great strength lies in its social commentary – despite being so obviously grounded in a contemporaneous crisis, it feels timeless in its reach. The play explores the deeper psychologies of being gay, with, for example, Neal’s character obsessively cleaning before and after sex, as well as reflections from both on how gay men can have a tendency to over-emphasise the amount of people with whom that they have slept with. 

Stories of the AIDs crisis have of course been widely covered on the stage, but Safe Sex manages to feel fresh through the strength of the writing from legendary American actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein, as well as from the easy chemistry between the two leads that is established once the play gets going. Nothing about the play feels dated – it makes clear that the political and social issues facing today’s gay community very much stem from the effects of the crisis presented in the play, rather than AIDs being a tragic aberration in what otherwise might have been a simpler story of gradual liberation that began with the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

The play is passionately acted by both leads, but as a whole it has an unfortunate sense of being slightly thrown together at the last minute. The set is very simple: both actors sit on either end of an allegorical see-saw, seemingly representative of the impossible balance they must be able to reach to find fulfilling love in a time of crisis. But the triangular fulcrum that forms the centerpiece of the see-saw on which they sit fell flat on the ground within five minutes of the play starting, revealing it to be a piece of light cardboard with a tiny blob of blue-tac at the top – a blob whose unlikely task it evidently had been to keep the set together for the whole performance. 

We cannot be too particular about such things at The Vaults, as the nature of a festival where there is such a huge amount of high-quality theatre going on all the time will mean such things as tech and dress rehearsals will be hard to come by. But out of respect to the professionalism of the actors and strength of the source material it would be nice if a touch more effort had been put in.

The whole play is over in around 40 minutes, with the ending a rather short and anti-climatic set piece that gives the vague impression that the production team could not really think of an appropriate ending. The story being performed actually forms part of a collection of three short plays by Fierstein that premiered together in 1987, all based around different experiences of AIDs. 

In this original context, with the balance provided by other narratives suggesting a broader sense of what AIDs meant to society, the story might have been able to cement itself in the consciousness of the audience more effectively. Nevertheless, even with its limited run-time, Safe Sex remains an important, prescient story that leaves you thinking about how gay history continues to dictate public acceptance of modern LGBT communities to this day. 

Safe Sex is playing at the Network Theatre until 15 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the VAULT Festival website.