The two medical students in “Love + Science” a new play by David J. Glass, quickly tumble into bed together and then spend five years too afraid to kiss.
The time is 1980s Manhattan, and the students, Matt and Jeff (Matt Walker, Jonathan Burke), are gay men both researching virology when reports of a frightening new infection arise. In this meet cute turned medical mystery by In Vitro Productions, the pair find themselves at the forefront of the H.I.V./AIDS crisis, investigating a deadly threat to which they’re both vulnerable. Glass sets the clock ticking (the years are marked between scenes) and asks us to observe the history of the devastating disease, ensuing protests and therapeutic breakthroughs.
Since the 1980s, a genre of plays dramatizing the AIDS epidemic, has generally sought to render on a human scale a catastrophe that might otherwise seem unfathomable. In “Love + Science,” Glass returns to the tradition of documentation, detailing both the microscopic maneuvers and social consequences of H.I.V. with the schematic precision of a lab experiment. (Glass is a senior lecturer in cell biology at Harvard University.) This meticulous drama that opened on Sunday at New York City Center functions primarily as a chronicle of developments, with characters whose particulars are cursory and incidental.
Walker and Burke are able and appealing performers, but surface-level charm is all the information-saturated dialogue will allow. (The push and pull between them as lovers, hyper-informed by risk but lacking in chemistry, has the erotic charge of a leaflet.) Of the five supporting cast members, who play multiple roles, Imani Pearl Williams brings welcome pizazz as a lab student and a blind date who each deliver truth bombs like punchlines. Adrian Greensmith and Ryan Knowles make the terror and uncertainty faced by AIDS patients both palpable and affecting.
The director Allen MacLeod’s lively production at least relishes the fun of 1980s aesthetics, with flashes of electric pink and blue in the lighting and projection design by Samuel J. Biondolillo and with costumes by Camilla Dely that are Zoomer catnip. And perhaps “Love + Science” will offer a bit of essential education, and opportunity for reflection, to those who did not live through the outbreak depicted onstage but have just experienced another pandemic.
If the coronavirus is the playwright’s claim to timeliness, that context is left almost entirely inferred until a present-day coda attempts to draw a rushed and tenuous through line. At the performance I attended, the audience seemed to assume the show was over before its leap three decades forward. Not that the final scene offers narrative resolutions; the relationships between the characters hardly ask for any, and the future of scientific study is still unwritten.
Love + Science
Through July 6 at New York City Center Stage II, Manhattan; loveandscienceplay.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.