THE NEW YORK TIMES
By ANITA GATES MAY 29, 1998
Kate has been working too hard at the AIDS clinic. At least that's what her friends conclude when she announces that her oven is talking to her. At first the voice is that of an English professor from Austin, Tex., flirting a little and giving her his hummus recipe. But when Kate claims to be receiving messages from beyond the grave, the other characters in Gary Bonasorte's sweet, sad, funny play ''Ascendancy'' decide she has gone around the bend.
The theater of AIDS has taken many forms, from the outrage of ''The Normal Heart'' and ''As Is'' in the mid-1980's to the grandeur of ''Angels in America.'' ''Ascendancy'' adds hope and comfort to the canon.
This does not mean, however, that the characters are not going through the all too familiar mixture of dying, grieving, denying, raging and burning out. When Kate (Tasha Lawrence) answers a telephone call to the clinic and is asked if AIDS can be contracted from a doorknob, she tells the caller graphically what relationship he would have to have with the doorknob for that to be the case.
Her brother Nick (Rob Bogue) has just learned that his T-cell count has dropped to 59. Nick's lover, Robert (Michael Malone), who helped start the clinic years ago, wanders about, asking the whereabouts of people long dead, but in the evening his mind clears and he recognizes and accepts his daytime dementia. ''It gets worse,'' he tells Nick calmly. ''It will take me from you.''
Meanwhile, Marie (Linda Powell) and Jimmy (Kenneth Favre) arrive to sign up for a new drug trial (various combinations of AZT, ddC, 3TC and the fictional IGQ90) that shows real promise. If only the clinic receptionist, Jason (Bryan Batt), would get off the telephone and help them. Jimmy (a hemophiliac who is accidentally registered as homosexual) used to be married to Jason's sister, so they do eventually get in. But Dr. Holland (Dominick Cuskern), whose son died a year before, after an eight-year fight, is throwing in the towel, selling the clinic to a conglomerate that sees big profits in AIDS drugs.
For ''Ascendancy'' to work, the audience must love Robert and feel cheated on hearing the bad news about him. Mr. Malone, who seems to bask in some unseen golden light, makes that easy. The character deals with the nearness of death with acceptance, gentle humor, peace of mind and a beatific smile that makes him seem almost angelic.
Mr. Batt, who is best known for playing Darius (the ''Cats'' cast member) in the stage and film versions of ''Jeffrey,'' has not been used so well. His character, Jason, is so obviously the comic relief that his wisecracks are often simultaneously predictable and jarring. (He does, however, make the line ''Straight men are just evil'' extremely funny.) In this role, Mr. Batt is actually best during his serious moments.
''Ascendancy'' continues Wednesdays through Sundays at the Theater Off Park in Greenwich Village through June 14. Its message is best summed up by Kate's awed comment, ''I think that there are people helping us.'' If that sentiment and some scenes are reminiscent of the film ''Ghost'' or a 1930's movie about the afterlife, so what? In times like these, we need all the help we can get.
By Gary Bonasorte; directed by Rob Bundy; sets by Van Santvoord; lighting by Ed McCarthy; costumes by Carol Brys; music and sound by Neil Benezra; stage manager, Kelly Merrill; assistant director, Jan E. Murphy. Presented by Rattlestick Productions. At Theater Off Park, 224 Waverly Place, Greenwich Village.
WITH: Bryan Batt (Jason), Rob Bogue (Nick), Dominick Cuskern (Dr. Holland), Kenneth Favre (Jimmy), Tasha Lawrence (Kate), Michael Malone (Robert) and Linda Powell (Marie).
Ascendany with Bryan Batt, Tasha Lawrence and Rob Bogue
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