Thanks to Transport for London I skidded into the auditorium of Passing By a minute before it started and had no time to consult the programme. Not realizing it was a transferred revival of a long-unseen Martin Sherman piece, my judgment rested on the dialogue and performances and I was singularly unimpressed.

Anxious artist Toby (Rik Makarem) meets hunky diver Simon (James Cartwright) in an art-house cinema somewhere in pre-Ed Koch lower Manhattan and they have a one-night stand. When Simon tracks Toby down to the wine shop where he works, their consummation results in them both contracting hepatitis and spending a month recuperating in the same room.

Not knowing the context, you might assume this is heading towards being an “AIDS play” but judging by the width of the flares we’re ten years too early. As they snipe and bicker their way through the illness, a bond forms between them but their exhausted lassitude becomes genuinely infectious and those who weren’t lightly dozing in the audience were certainly looking at their watches.

They get better, although the play doesn’t. Toby follows his artistic dream and goes to France and Simon stays in New York at the conclusion of one of the longest-drawn-out separation scenes since Ingrid Bergman dithered in Casablanca about whether to get on the Lisbon plane. It’s a surprise their parting line isn’t “We’ll always have jaundice.”

Which is a pity, because that’s a thousand times funnier than the dialogue between these two actors. It’s billed as a “romantic comedy” and when One Stop Arts reviewed the play barely a year ago, my colleague found it tender and sultry and sweetly nostalgic, maybe because the Finborough cast were more truly invested in the piece. It now features two guys with television profiles but they remain detached from the material, and seem unconvincing gays. Nor do they capture Sherman’s intention to portray people from different religious and social backgrounds: in the script, Toby is a quirkily hypochondriac Yiddish-quoting nebbish Jew closely patterned on Woody Allen, but also autobiographical for Sherman himself, and Simon is a Florida-orange-juice-raised WASP jock. None of this comes across in the performances and the stage personalities are so flat you cannot actually care about their outcomes.

It’s only the slowness of the pace and the lack of engagement with the story that could make you notice something like this but at the height of their lethargic illness they are supposed to be exhausted and moving only in the slowest of slow motion, after pulling a sheet off his head, Cartwright flicks his fringe back into place with a sudden movement full of reflex energy and actorly vanity.

What makes the piece worthy of revival, though, is its historical context. Sherman, author of the later and finer Bent, wrote it in 1972 and its 1975 London production was a landmark for pioneering company Gay Sweatshop and a Damascene coming-out moment for Simon Callow who played Toby at the tiny hothouse which was the Almost Free Theatre in Rupert Street. It’s significant because this may be the first play with gay characters where their homosexuality is not a dramatic issue. Apart from the fact that their love is confined within the walls of the grubby basement apartment – a fine composite set by Philip Lindley – because they couldn’t kiss outside it, no element of the plot is dependent on their sexuality.

So a landmark, then, but not a barrel of laughs.

Date reviewed: Thursday 7th November 2013
Image © Scott Rylander

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.