Review: 'As Is', an impeccably drawn portrayal of the AIDS crisis

A play about people living and dying with AIDS is never going to be a laugh a minute experience, but As Is, written in 1985 by William Hoffman, does have its fair share of light moments whilst detailing a dark time in gay history in a direct and darkly humorous way. By no means a comedy, this is a beautifully drawn, multilayered and grittily real story of a young man coming to terms with having AIDS and the inevitability of dying a very painful and undignified death, punctuated by occasional laugh out loud moments courtesy of Russell Morton, who plays a variety of eccentric camp characters. As Is-5 Rich (Steven Webb) is a writer of fairytales who lives a typically fractured domestic life with his partner Saul (David Poynor). The fragility of their relationship is given a devastating blow  when a friend's cute cousin Chet (Giles Cooper) arrives in New York. The fling changes everything, ultimately sealing Rich's fate, as we chillingly discover midway through the play when once athletic Chet reappears smothered in lesions. The back bone of the plot is Rich's relationship with his ex Saul and how the pair plan to live with his seemingly futile diagnosis. Rich is convinced the end is near and doesn't want Saul wasting his enduring feelings on him, while Saul simply can't let him go and assures him he'll be there through the worst of it. As Is-4 All Rich wants is to cling on to life and to rid himself of the disease he knows will ultimately kill him. His meathead brother (Cucumber's Dino Fetscher) has difficulty dealing with his condition, too scared to touch him or even be near him. In one tragi-comic scene, the brother visits Rich in hospital, wrapped up in as surgical gown and mask in the belief - as many had then - that AIDS was airborne. The play opens with the cast already on set, sitting solemnly in a waiting room with news reports about the AIDS epidemic from the 80s sounding out around them. As the audience sits listening to the ominous sound clips, we are instantly thrown back to a time and a world when panic, paranoia and fear surrounding the epidemic of AIDS gripped the world. What follows is a series of vignettes and flashbacks, encapsulating what gay life was like in the early 80s and revealing Rich's descent into illness. As Is-2 While youthful and cocksure Rich grates at first, his coming to terms with illness - dealing with sadness, anger and desperation - shows him grow stronger and more sympathetic as we hurtle toward the inevitable conclusion. Handsome Steven Webb, one of the most engaging actors of his generation, gives a stunning performance of huge depth as Rich. Brash and arrogant one minute, soft and vulnerable the next, you cannot take your eyes off him. He is captivating, helped by the fact the staging is so intimate, you can literally see his eyes tear up, his lip tremble, his forehead crease when he's in pain. His performance is so strong, ten minutes in you forget you are two feet from the action and start to feel like you're intruding on someone's real life. As Is While Rich's relationship with Saul is the beating heart of the story, the moment that packs the most emotional punch is a short scene midway through with Rich and his brother. It's a beautiful and heartbreaking moment, thanks in part to Dino's sterling performance as the meathead brother. As Is makes for a tough watch, not only because it deals with a devastating disease, but also watching a vibrant young man slowly deteriorate before our eyes. To some, the subject matter may not be attractive, but the story is affecting. Ultimately it is a story about a man who has to come to terms with dying. With just days left to go before the run ends, go and enjoy this superb play and cast while you can. FOUR STARS As Is plays the Trafalgar Studios until August 01.