A Play in NYC Wittily Explores the Emotional Toll on HIV Plague-Era Survivors

Contributing Editor
Jonathan Walker (top) and Robert Gomes in 'Still at Risk.'
Clay Anderson

"It's always so good to see you ... briefly."

If that sounds like a Bette Davis zinger from All About Eve, think again. It's actually just one of many hilariously bitchy lines from Still at Risk, a two-act play by 1980s/90s AIDS-era veteran Tim Pinckney that's at New York City's Theater for the New City right now until March 31. But as full of shady one-liners and parting shots as the play is, it's also a warmly moving story about a trio of forty- and fifty-something queer friends, former activists, and caregivers waking up to the antiretroviral era in very early 21st-century New York ... and realizing that a new generation of queers is already half-oblivious to all the pain they went through and everything they fought for.

At the center of the play is Kevin (played with scruffy, cantankerous gusto by Robert Gomes), a one-time actor who's now an existentially stuck cater-waiter. A former ACT UP member and safe-sex instructor, he's infuriated at how AIDS Inc. has turned its back on Eric, his former boyfriend, a passionate but polarizing, Larry Kramer-like activist who died of AIDS more than a decade before.

Completing the friendship triangle are Marcus (Jonathan Walker), a tart actor living comfortably off residuals from his hit sitcom and former caregiver who sat out street activism, and Susan (Amy Hohn), a warmly sassy former shaven-headed ACT UP lesbian now married to a man and raising a child but still freelance-reporting on the LGBT community. In their effort to honor Eric's problematic memory, the three of them spar with Byron (Ryan Spahn), the hilariously self-important, cocky, younger guppie now in charge of fundraising and events, including a star-studded "heroes tribute" gala, for a large nonprofit obviously based on GMHC.

The play is as funny as it is moving, speaking to the trauma, loss, and anger of those who survived the plague's worst years. (Sitting to my left was a gentleman seemingly in his fifties or sixties who cried as much as he laughed.) We caught up with playwright Pinckney, a -- surprise! -- former actor and safe-sex educator whose day job is producing events for The Actors Fund, about what inspired Still at Risk (which played in San Francisco last year) and why he thinks it's important to laugh amid grief.

Tim Murphy: Hi there, Tim! So, right up front: Is the character of Kevin based on you? Or perhaps Byron, as an event planner?

Tim Pinckney: Well, Byron says a lot of things I sometimes wish I could say. But he's actually an amalgamation of several people I've met over the years. The idea that he has a well-paying job but still thinks he's "giving back" to the community because he could be making more money if he weren't working at a charity -- someone actually said that to me once, and I thought my head was going to blow off.

TM: So let's hear a little about you.

TP: Well, I moved to New York from far upstate in the early 1980s and was an actor for about 10 years. As a playwright, my last New York play was Message to Michael in 1996, based on my friendship with my best friend, David Serko, a Broadway dancer who was very active in ACT UP and died in 1992.

TM: Welcome back to the New York stage! How did this play evolve?

TP: When I stopped acting and started taking care of David, I started working full time at GMHC as an intake clinician. At that time, they had a lot of really intense classes about experimental drugs and other things. I went from knowing nothing about AIDS to quite a bit, then I started teaching safer sex workshops. This was during the second wave of AIDS deaths, in the early 90s, when I lost most of my friends. But it also represents the most important part of my life, because, as horrible, difficult, and challenging as that time was, I felt like I was the best version of myself -- the bravest and most outspoken I've ever been.

I started this play in the early 2000s because I wanted to write something that captured my feeling of frustration that everything that had happened was already being forgotten. It's important for us to remember how we came together and took care of one another and ourselves. I remember my first safe sex workshop. It was gay men from all different parts of gay culture: hardcore leather men, drag queens, feminine men, butch men. We were all in a room together because we wanted to be able to enjoy hot, creative sex but stay alive and take care of ourselves. It's important for us to remember that.

TM: Is Eric, who in the play is dead but drives a lot of the plot, based in part on Larry Kramer?

TP: That parallel was never lost on me -- but actually, not at all. He's based maybe on a series of activists I met through the years, heroes to me, like Peter Staley and Eric Sawyer, but not because of something specific that they did.

TM: But the play is as much about Kevin not being able to move on from that era as it is an indictment of the gay community's collective amnesia.

TP: Right, the center of the play is Kevin's inability to get out of his own way. It's about the friendships that Kevin creates and maintains and his ability to finally live beyond this. He's HIV negative, but he's a whole different kind of survivor.

TM: It's also interesting and fun to watch a story set in the early 2000s, complete with flared jeans and flip phones. It's still so recent that we don't see a lot of work set then.

TP: Right, it's set somewhere between 2002 and 2005. I lost a couple good friends in the early 2000s from AIDS, even despite the new drugs. We were seeing a lot of crystal meth suddenly, and people making stupid choices. People felt like they had been vigilant long enough and started to get careless. And you didn't see as much prevention messaging on buses, et cetera, and there was a big uptick in new infections, especially in young kids.

TM: It's also a very witty play. People actually say things like, "Oh ... and pay for my drink," as they walk out on someone in a bar. What are your influences?

TP: I'm a creature of Turner Movie Classics. I love, love, love late thirties and early forties comedies like The Philadelphia Story or Holiday or The Lady Eve, where because of the Hollywood morality codes, they couldn't come out and say exactly what things meant, so instead you have a guy putting a shoe on Barbara Stanwyck and it's so sexy, with smart, clipped dialogue. I'm also very influenced by the plays of Lanford Wilson, who wrote people who I recognized, including gay characters, and of course by Terrence McNally, too.

TM: Do you hope the play will have more life?

TP: I'm happy to say that there are some people who are interested in it, so I hope we get a chance to do it in a bigger venue. You can follow all that on its Facebook page.

TM: Where do you think we are at this point with the epidemic and remembering what came before?

TP: I don't know that I'm qualified to answer that. It's not the center of my world anymore like it once was. My younger friends are on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and I'm glad they're doing something to take care of themselves. If we'd had PrEP when I was growing up, I'd be eating it like M&Ms, but I'm sure I would be using condoms or other protection too, because we grew up in this era when we didn't trust anything. It's so important to remember how quickly out of control this got. You would have assumed that if a population in this country was dying, the government would step up, but that wasn't true. And it's important to remember that, especially in this time period with the language coming out of the White House and the people who support that dangerous criminal in there. I really do believe that what happened could easily happen again. We have to be vigilant.