In the 40-plus years since HIV first attached itself to the world’s DNA, many books, movies, plays and even musicals have been made which feature AIDS as a character. Love + Science is one such new play by David J. Glass, telling the story of two young, gay medical students Matt (Matt Walker) and Jeff (Jonathan Burke) who meet, fall in lust/love, and over time study the virus and treat its patients, all while navigating the threat of infection in their own lives.
Matt says goodbye to his old life, a sketchy existence which includes fair-weather boyfriend Nicky (Ryan Knowles) and Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell (Tally Sessions), to begin med school. He meets Jeff at their undergraduate graduation ceremony, and the two of them eventually begin to work with renowned virologist Professor Diane Gold (Thursday Farrar), and later fellow student Melissa (Imani Pearl Williams).
In stereotypically gay fashion, Jeff and Matt fall into bed in short order, but when HIV first bursts on the scene (as GRID), Matt calls the sexual part of their relationship off, and the story continues as each makes his way through the new world with HIV in it.
Matt’s character is by far the more conservative and buttoned up of the pair, and Jeff is the more passionate, playful, and gregarious. These two ultimately personify the juxtaposed stances of “science” and “love” respectively, frequently resulting in the tension between them (and just as conveniently serves to provide the play’s title).
Actor Walker happens to be a scientist as well, and fortunately his performer side manages to imbue warmth and humor into his part where it counts. Burke as Jeff is intense and more spontaneous. Together, they don’t quite have the chemistry that their roles seem to ask for, but they are earnest in their interactions and carry the play together well.
The remaining cast all play multiple roles, and each actor is extremely successful at differentiating their parts. Before Farrar first appears as Professor Gold, a role which she gives just the right amounts of wry humor and grave sincerity, she saunters across the stage as the sassy Studio 54 waitress Stella, teasing Matt about becoming a doctor. Knowles’ portrayal as Matt’s non-committal boyfriend Nicky is initially pitiful but is later quietly sad, despairing and hopeless. Sessions’ performances as the smarmy Steve Rubell and the judgmental lecturer Dr. Stern are keenly contrasted by his short but concerned and loving stint as Nicky’s boyfriend, James.
Adrian David Greensmith makes his stage debut as the confused and bewildered patient Gary; his innocent, halting performance subtly conveys the alarm and concern that AIDS victims must have felt when they first learned of this new fatal disease. William’s portrayal of her main role as Melissa is keenly inquisitive, and her turn as Matt’s single heterosexual date Jane is on the money.
As for the play itself, Love + Science tells a good story, even if not necessarily a new one. It’s largely another history of AIDS with a few scientific sprinkles thrown in. Where Glass’ script succeeds is in its characters and their determination. There are two especially poignant moments, conveyed by Melissa and Jane (both played by Williams), where they each confront Matt about how damaging his indecisiveness over owning his homosexuality is. And the scene where Jeff reproaches Matt for telling James that AIDS is 100% fatal is riveting.
Lastly, it’s in the final scene where Glass’ play provides its most powerful message, when a now middle-aged Matt in 2021 compares the body count of AIDS to that of COVID-19, contrasting the swiftness with which the governments of the world produced a vaccine for COVID-19 where they have yet to create a vaccine for HIV, 40 years into the AIDS pandemic.
The direction by Allen MacLeod holds the production together well, encouraging listening between the actors and maximizing use of the spare but efficient set by Zoë Hurwitz. Samuel J. Biondolillo’s lighting and projection is inventive and is imaginatively intertwined with the sound design and original music by Jane Shaw.
Love + Science is an enjoyable if not ground-breaking addition to the world’s canon of AIDS plays, keeping the reminder afloat that the AIDS pandemic is far from over.
Love + Science (through July 6, 2023)
In Vitro Productions
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets visit https://www.loveandscienceplay.com/
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission