A Liberal Education: Excerpt from Act One [Opening]

A Liberal Education

by Scott Ross

 

DESCRIPTION OF PLAY

A Liberal Education describes the downward spiral of a man in the throes of personal and sexual obsession during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It is concerned with public and private duplicity—personal, ethical, sexual and political—and the ways in which ideals are either corrupted or destroyed by shadow politics. The play begins in 1981, with the first newspaper article concerning the deaths of a number of gay men from a mysterious cancer; the action carries through to 1986, when AIDS has become a full-blown pandemic.

The central character is Nick Halpern, a young gay writer. Nick’s attempts to investigate the life of a closeted homosexual man named Michael Kelly, a fund-raiser for right-wing Republican politicians, sets the play in motion. After unwittingly sleeping with Kelly (who uses an alias), Nick’s fury at being duped becomes an obsession. His determination to expose Kelly is fueled by his simultaneous personal revulsion and sexual desire.

Kelly is equally attracted to Nick, and far more amused than threatened by Nick’s threats of exposure. He senses that the two are more alike than Nick cares to admit, and is so insulated by his political connections that he can never lose—even in death. Kelly plays his cynicism against Nick’s naivete, engaging him in a series of philosophical debates as his attempt to “instruct” Nick in the ways of the political world.

When Nick’s curiously symbiotic relationship with Kelly becomes overtly sexual, the extended liaison leads to the loss of Nick’s partnership with the actor Sandy Peoples (who later dies from HIV/AIDS complications); the estrangement of his friendships with David Kearns (a Washington lobbyist for gay causes), Sheree (his book editor) and Sheree’s younger lover Jo; and finally, his own health as he succumbs to the HIV virus.

Nick’s relationship to Sandy is complicated by his desire to see his actor lover come out, and by Sandy’s fear of doing so. When he becomes ill, Nick is no longer around to care for him. Sheree champions a book of essays by Nick, but is later a target of Nick’s paranoia—which is turn is fueled by Nick’s increasing dependence on cocaine as his relationship to Kelly becomes darker and more perverse.

If the play has a fixed moral center, it is David. Somewhat effeminate and seemingly ineffectual, it is David who remains truest to his own ideals. Even when forced to turn his back on the heartbreak of lobbying indifferent politicians in the face of a pandemic, David’s essential decencies remain intact. Although the politically impregnable Kelly ultimately triumphs over Nick’s self-righteousness and naivete, even as his own health deteriorates, in the play’s coda the terminally ill Nick, vague of mind and uncharacteristically gentle, is “forgiven” by David.

The action of the play is continuous, and the events occur in New York City or Washington DC. A Liberal Education should be performed on a simple unit set with minimal props and furniture. The lighting should be designed to indicate change of time and, with the set, venue.

The following is the opening sequence of the first act.

ACT ONE

(The actor who plays JO speaks.)

JO:

Washington, D.C. 1981.

(Music in the dark: the last few bars of a country-western swing band tune. MICHAEL KELLY appears on a level at stage left, facing out. Below him, at floor level is DAVID, perpendicular to KELLY. KELLY speaks in a folksy manner, complete with broad—but not cornpone—Southern accent.

(The music fades.)

KELLY:

As most of you know, my name is Michael Kelly. And I want to say a few words about the reason we’re all here.

(DAVID is considerably less ebullient than KELLY; more resignedalmost depressed.)

DAVID:

I don’t need to tell you what we’re up against these days. Or maybe I do. Because, no matter how often we bring you the message, too many of you just don’t get it.

(The following duologue should gradually build pace, to the point where the lines of dialogue begin to overlap.)

KELLY:

We have the money—

DAVID:

They have infinitely greater amounts of money.

KELLY:

We have the power—

DAVID:

They are willing to spend that money.

KELLY:

And now we have—

DAVID:

They have leadership.

KELLY:

—the White House.

DAVID:

They’re not in any closets.

KELLY:

Now we must share that money.

DAVID:

They are in control.

KELLY:

So, give, to keep our control. To shut out—

DAVID:

They own the media.

KELLY:

—the ceaseless drone of the liberal media—

DAVID:

They have dozens of lobbyists—

KELLY:

To help our lobbyists’ work.

DAVID:

We have three.

KELLY:

To reverse Rowe v. Wade—

DAVID:

So I’m asking you—

KELLY:

Stop homosexual teachers—

DAVID:

—no, I’m begging you—

KELLY:

—get prayer back in our schools…

           DAVID:                                                                      KELLY:

(Simultaneously)

          —to give.                                                                   So, give.

KELLY:

So that we may receive—

DAVID:

For our basic rights.

KELLY:

—a nation built on American values—

DAVID:

It’s our America, too.

KELLY:

—and our sacred beliefs.

DAVID:

Today is already too late—

KELLY:

And remember…

DAVID:

What about tomorrow?

KELLY:

It’s only the first million that hurts. Thank you.

(KELLY exits, waving energetically.)

DAVID:

Thank you.

(He moves, unsmiling, to stage right.  Lights change slightly. NICK is discovered drinking a bottle of beer, lost in his own thoughts. DAVID creeps up behind him and grabs him, cheered to find his friend.)

Nicky! You made it after all.

(Kisses NICK on the cheek. NICK smiles and hugs DAVID back. They exchange a kiss.)

NICK:

You look good enough to eat.

DAVID:

Don’t make promises you don’t plan to fulfill. Sorry I couldn’t meet you sooner. Your call was so late. And after the appeal, I had to extricate myself from the clutches of that odious George Templeton.

(NICK gives him a blank look)

In the immortal words of Zsa Zsa Gabor, “I hate dot qveen!”

NICK:

I’m sorry—?

DAVID:

Queen of Outer Space? It’s a B-movie? Oh, never mind.

NICK:

No, George who?

DAVID:

You remember him. Supercilious clone. Heir to some ubiquitous fortune or other.

NICK:

Sorry, I—that was a terrific speech, David.

DAVID:

Which one? Oh— thanks. For all the good it’ll do. I’ve been canvassing all night, and so far the money I’ve raised should be just enough to pay for my boutonniere. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.

NICK:

Well, I’m glad you do.

DAVID:

Even if it means having a permanent indentation on my head from banging it against the wall?

NICK:

Even then.

DAVID:

Fine, I’ll send you my Tylenol bill. Listen, can we take the air? I’m having a reaction to all this Pierre Cardin.

(They walk out of the banquet hall and into the Washington streets)

If only I’d known sooner that you were coming. I’d have mussed the bed sheets a bit for effect.

NICK:

(Putting his arm around DAVID’s shoulder)

David’s love-life—the one constant in an inconstant world.

DAVID:

I speak sooth. Your message was a bit cryptic. What is it you’re doing here, again?

NICK:

I’m researching a story for The Village Voice—about gay men in Iran under the Islamic Revolution.

(DAVID shudders)

I know—I can’t imagine the nightmares they must have.

DAVID:

I can’t imagine the nightmare they must live. How long are you gonna be in town?

NICK:

A few days, maybe a week. Can you stand me sleeping on your sofa that long?

DAVID:

Stay as long as you care to. I may not be in much, but you can entertain yourself, I imagine. Actually, I don’t want to imagine.

NICK:

(Playfully hitting DAVID on the arm)

Bitch.

(Suddenly quite serious)

Davy, what if anything, do you know about a man named Michael Kelly?

(The name causes DAVID to blanch. He recovers quickly and goes for nonchalance.)

DAVID:

Why? What have you heard?

NICK:

Not much.  Rumors, mostly.

DAVID:

(As they sit on a platform that serves as a bench or wall or fountain edge)

Okay—you know about PACs—Political Action Committees?

NICK:

Sure.

DAVID:

The more right-wing ones do especially well with Southern politicians. Like a certain senator from North Carolina. Well, that happy, transplanted Tar Heel Michael Kelly is just about the best little fascist fund-raiser in the business. Rumor hath it his parties helped cinch the last Senate election there.

NICK:

He got Helms re-elected?

DAVID:

You didn’t hear that from me.

NICK:

Transplanted, you said. Where’s he from?

DAVID:

His family came from one of those medieval states—Alabama, Mississippi—I forget which. He divides his time now between Raleigh and D.C.

NICK:

Okay, here’s what I don’t get. This Kelly—

DAVID:

Has steel-reinforced closet doors. Except that everyone knows it. I hear he’s a regular at a certain Beltway cat-house. Tom cats only. Arrawwr.

NICK:

Okay, but if everyone knows he’s gay—

DAVID:

Honey, you are gay. I am gay. Michael Kelly is a ho-mo-sexual.

NICK:

Very much practicing, I take it.

DAVID:

Insatiable. I hear.

NICK:

So, why’s this guy is so hot for the Bill Buckley set?

DAVID:

I would know?

NICK:

Sorry—rhetorical. Have you ever seen him?

DAVID:

Lord, no. Don’t want to. Why? Can’t you find a photo?

NICK:

Not so far. From what you hear, then—attractive?

DAVID:

From what I hear? Very.

NICK:

And very wealthy.

DAVID:

Yes, but that’s less important around here than you think.

NICK:

(Teasingly)

Snob. So, which is shallower: attraction to surface beauty or lust for money?

DAVID:

It’s a question of degrees, that’s all. One just a little less shallow than the other. I mean, money you can only spend once. A pretty face you can wake up to indefinitely. You could, anyway.

NICK:

Oh, stop.

DAVID:

I’m just being honest. If my dance-card ever gets filled, you’ll be the first to know that, too. Power’s the great aphrodisiac here. Which explains why I’ve been so very successful.

(He stands)

I’d better get back.

(They walk back to the banquet)

A word of warning, Nicky. About Kelly? Be careful. You know about jasmine: The sweeter the fragrance, the deadlier the poison. Keep an antidote close by. Oh! Did you see my friend Sandy?

NICK:

Sandy.

DAVID:

Obviously not. Sandy Peoples. He’s been after me for months now to introduce you two.

NICK:

The actor?

DAVID:

No, the brick-layer. Dope. He’s in a show at the KennedyCenter. I called him this afternoon when you ‘phoned. He said he’d come. Hm. I didn’t think he had a performance tonight … Well, Sandy is pretty closety.

NICK:

You staying much longer?

DAVID:

Have to make the appointed rounds. If I get really desperate I may do a strip-tease. That should clear the room.

(He looks off and spots a pigeon)

Hmm. I see potential. Economic, I hasten to add. Even more important than the other kind.

NICK:

Especially now.

DAVID:

Oh, god. Well, as my mother said when she struck me from the will, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ll see you back home.

(Starts to leave, turns back)

Oh! Give Tony a call, will you?

NICK:

Tony Blake? Sure. Why?

DAVID:

He found a couple of marks on his leg he can’t identify. You know what a hypochondriac he is.

NICK:

Yeah, I know.

DAVID:

His lover’s left him and he’s lonely and scared, so please don’t wait too long. Oh, and when you call? Play dumb.

(He exits. NICK stands, musing, for a moment. Then he wanders off with the bottle, loosening his tie. Lights indicate scene change, and we’re in a bar. Flashing lights, loud disco music. NICK, now rather inebriated, sits with his beer, observing the clientele. KELLY watches NICK from the side for a beat or two, then comes over. He now speaks in a soft voice with a trace of Southern accent at the edges. The music softens a bit but remains obtrusive.)

KELLY:

Hi.

NICK:

Hi.

KELLY:

What’re you drinking?

(NICK holds up his bottle)

I’ll buy you another.

NICK:

Don’t bother. I was just about to leave anyway.

KELLY:

Oh? Can we talk a bit before you go?

NICK:

You’re talking now.

KELLY:

Name’s Andy.

NICK:

Nick.

KELLY:

Where you off to, Nick? It’s early.

NICK:

Late for me. Just came to meet a friend.

KELLY:

Who didn’t show.

NICK:

You, uh, been watching me, Andy?

KELLY:

For some time, Nick.

NICK:

It’s a very loud place. I can barely hear you.

KELLY:

I could speak louder. Or move closer.

NICK:

There’s an idea.

(KELLY moves, brushing his thigh up against NICK’s.  He leaves it there.) 

KELLY:

Better?

NICK:

Better.

KELLY:

We could go somewhere a little quieter.

NICK:

I’m hearing more clearly all the time.

KELLY:

You live here in town?

NICK:

No, just visiting.

KELLY:

Staying with friends?

NICK:

A friend.

KELLY:

A “friend” friend, or a … friend?

NICK:

A friend. I’m just here to do a little … research.

KELLY:

Perhaps I can assist you in your … research?

NICK:

(After a beat)

You can hold my flash-light.

(Beat.  He breaks up.  KELLY smiles.)

I’m sorry. You’re drunk, and I’m cute. Uh—the other way.

KELLY:

Not too drunk?

(NICK shakes his head in the negative)

Want to go?

(NICK nods in the affirmative)

NICK:

(He touches KELLY’s chest with his index finger)

You live alone?

KELLY:

(Placing a hand on NICK’s upstage cheek)

For the moment.

(They smile at each other and leave the bar together. A cross-fade to KELLY’s townhouse. The platform now sports a long sheet, folded. The disco music fades and is replaced by a slow, low jazz recording—Billie Holiday’s “Stormy Monday,” perhaps. NICK and KELLY began to dance, slowly. The lighting is very subtle, dim, seductive. After a beat or two, KELLY puts out his hand and opens a button on NICK’s shirt. NICK stands, swaying to the music, as KELLY undresses him. He finishes unbuttoning the shirt, slips it off NICK’s torso and tosses it to one side. NICK kicks off his shoes. KELLY kneels and reaches for the snap on NICK’s trousers. He unsnaps them, lowers the zipper and pulls them over NICK’s feet. When NICK is clothed only in his briefs, he and KELLY go to opposite sides of the platform and unfold the sheet, then climb in under it. They embrace as the lights dim to a seductive, shadowy noir darkness. The music fades. The lights come up again. Morning. KELLY, awake, leans over the still-sleeping NICK—who in the darkness has slid his briefs down to his knees under the sheet. KELLY looks at him a beat, then kisses his arm. He moves up to nuzzle NICK’s neck, his hand caressing NICK’s chest. NICK stirs, rolls onto his back, looks sleepily at KELLY.)

NICK:

’morning.

KELLY:

Hi.

(NICK leans toward KELLY, his mouth poised for a kiss)

Tell me something.

NICK:

Mm?

KELLY:

Enjoy yourself?

NICK:

Mmmmmm.

(He moves to kiss KELLY)

KELLY:

I don’t fuck like a Republican?

NICK:

                                                            (Beat)

Uh… What?

KELLY:

You once wrote, I believe, that Republican queers make love like they vote—now, what was the phrase? Oh, yes: under the covers and ass-backwards.

(NICK takes his hands from KELLY and scoots to his side of the sheet)

NICK:

You certainly seem to know who I am, but—

KELLY:

Nick Halpern, Michael Kelly.

(Long pause as it filters through the alcoholic fog of NICK’s mind. Then NICK sits up, fast)

So pleased to meet you, Mr. Halpern.

(Beat)

My, my. Yankees are so impolite.

(NICK reaches for his shorts and puts them back on under the sheet)

So modest.

NICK:

Can’t say I care very much for your style, Mr. Kelly,

KELLY:

You liked it well enough last night.

NICK:

Last night things were different. Your name, for example.

KELLY:

Is Michael Anderson Kelly. I use the middle name or its diminutive when the occasion warrants. And the benefits seem worth the effort.

NICK:

Can you tell me where my shirt is, please?

(KELLY picks up the shirt form the floor beside him and holds it out.  NICK takes it.)

Thank you. 

KELLY:

Your ardor has certainly cooled, Mr. Halpern.

NICK:

I’m always a bit ugly the morning after a deception.

KELLY:

And how were you deceived, may I ask? Such melodrama.

NICK:

Cut the fucking Tennessee Williams. Just tell me why.

KELLY:

Why not?

NICK:

Forgive me if I fail to return the compliment.

KELLY:

Well—who woke up on the wrong side of the fuck this morning?

(Rolls over, his back to NICK)

NICK:

Shoes, please.

(KELLY points to the shoes without turning around. As NICK gets them, KELLY sits up again, amused. NICK sits on the edge of the sheet to put on his shoes.)

KELLY:

Was I really all that bad?

NICK:

How would I know? I was drunk, remember?

KELLY:

(Putting his arms around NICK from behind and caressing his chest)

Not that drunk.

NICK:

(Pushing KELLY’s arms away)

David Kearns was right about you.

KELLY:

(Laughing)

David Kearns. A silly little faggot who wastes a great deal of time and money drawing attention to himself.

NICK:

At least David cares about something larger than—

KELLY:

Oh, next you’ll be asking me how I live with myself.

NICK:

Well, not to put too fine a point on it—

KELLY:

Very well, thank you.  How does anyone?

(After a beat)

Mr. Halpern—oh, may I call you Nick? I cannot of course speak for you, but I had a marvelous time last night. You’re a talented partner. And you look so cute in your skivvies. But I’ll be completely honest with you.

NICK:

Won’t that be refreshing?

KELLY:

(He takes NICK’s arm lightly)

You can fuck me, Nick, and we may both enjoy it. But don’t you ever

(His grip tightens violently)

— fuck with me. You’ve spoken to people who know better than to tell you anything without coming to me first.

(Lets go of NICK’s arm)

NICK:

Thanks for the tip. I’ll be more discreet next time.

KELLY:

There won’t be a next time, Mr. Halpern.

NICK:

What happened to “Nick”?

KELLY:

Don’t write about me. I can make things very unpleasant for you, and I’d hate to do that.

NICK:

Is that a threat?

KELLY:

A perfectly legal one. You don’t have the money it would take to fight any sort of libel suit, so drop it.

NICK:

Drop what?

KELLY:

You’re innocent, all right, but not that innocent. And don’t be too surprised that your rendez-vous last night never showed up. He had … second thoughts. You really should have a clearer picture of your quarry, you know. Foolish.

NICK:

Is it my fault no one in New York knows you exist?

KELLY:

Am I to be insulted? Or flattered?

NICK:

Funny about that—I couldn’t find a picture.

KELLY:

I don’t get photographed.

NICK:

Don’t? Or can’t? When you pass a mirror, do you cast a reflection?

(Beat)

What was your purpose with this?

KELLY:

I wanted you to know who you’re dealing with. And there were … compensations.

NICK:

Am I dismissed now?

KELLY:

That’s entirely up to you. You’re more than welcome to stay. I haven’t spent the better part of the day in bed for quite some time. And you’re rather sweet, when you aren’t shooting your mouth off about things you can’t begin to understand. But then, I lack your refined, ethical standards.

NICK:

You said it, babe, not me.

KELLY:

Was I really a fate worse than death, Nicky?

(Beat)

I love that self-righteous look. Brings out the color in your cheeks. Your problem is, you take sex far too seriously. It isn’t always the prelude to something finer.

NICK:

Or a means to an end.

KELLY:

That’s where you’re mistaken. Most often, it’s nothing more nor less than a good time.

NICK:

I’ll remember that.

KELLY:

It certainly isn’t enough to make a political movement out of. Now, either take off your pants and come back to bed, or get the fuck out of my house.

(NICK doesn’t move. KELLY rolls over, pulling the sheets around him. NICK stares at him for a beat or two, then moves off, dazed, into the darkness. The lights on KELLY dim out, coming up on the opposite side of the stage: DAVID’s apartment. NICK lies on the floor, an empty bottle overturned near his hand. DAVID enters holding a folded newspaper.)

DAVID:

Nicky?

(He sees NICK, goes to him. He notices the bottle and moves it, then bends over to shake NICK’s shoulder)

Nicky, wake up.

(NICK groans, rolls over)

Nicky—

(He pulls NICK to him, rather like a Pieta. NICK sits up gingerly, holding his head)

Someone didn’t come home last night.

NICK:

When was last night? Ungh. What time is it?

DAVID:

After six. That’s P.M.

(Picks up the bottle)

What were you trying to do?

NICK:

Lose my memory.

(After a beat)

This goes no further than this room. Okay?

DAVID:

Okay.

NICK:

I mean it, David.  You repeat this, I swear I’ll kill you.

DAVID:

Okay, okay! Jesus—

NICK:

This morning, I woke up next to Michael Kelly.

(DAVID reacts, then catches himself)

DAVID:

Sorry.

NICK:

I didn’t know.

DAVID:

I believe you.

(Beat)

Was he good?

NICK:

Davy!

                                                            (Beat.  DAVID looks skeptical)

He was … all right. Until he opened his fucking mouth.

DAVID:

Only all right? Hm.

NICK:

It wasn’t so special.

DAVID:

Right.

NICK:

Just another night.

DAVID:

Uh-huh.

(Beat)

Then how come you’re stinko? So you got fooled into sleeping with a creep. I said he was probably pretty cute. And you enjoyed it. Maybe your head danced with brief visions of domesticity. And you would have come back for more if he hadn’t told you who he was. And that is why you smell like Rasputin’s BVDs. So, kick yourself for a while and then chalk it up to Lessons Learned or Things We’ll Never Do Again, and eventually—you’ll forget it. It never would happen again, right?

(Beat)

Right, Nicky?

NICK:

Of course not.

DAVID:

(After looking curiously at NICK for a beat)

Anyway, I’ve got more important matters on my mind right now than your sex-life.

NICK:

                                                            (Distracted)

Like what?

DAVID:

You didn’t see the New York Times this morning?

NICK:

What’s in the Times?

DAVID:

Did you call Tony Blake like I asked you?

NICK:

Oh, fuck. No. Sorry.

DAVID:

Remember what I told you? About those marks on his leg? He had heard there was some kind of “gay cancer” going around.

NICK:

Diseases don’t make sexual distinctions, it’s ridiculous—

DAVID:

But Nicky—there is a gay cancer. That’s what’s in the Times. Some obscure thing called, uh—

(Looks at the paper)

Karposi’s—no—Kaposi’s sarcoma. Forty men. Tony’s one of them.

NICK:

Jesus, they printed the names?

(Beat. DAVID looks at NICK, then rolls his eyes)

DAVID:

Of course they didn’t. I just thought he might be, so I called him. No one can talk about anything else. Look, read this when you’re human again. And call Tony.

NICK:

(Reading, as he will throughout the following)

Yeah. Okay.

DAVID:

Oh—I spoke to Sandy this morning. He did have a performance last night after all. He says he’ll call you when he gets back to New York.

NICK:

Um-hm.

DAVID:

And Nick—about Kelly? You weren’t the first. You surely won’t be the last. Don’t develop a complex. Come to my office at eight. I’ll let you know what I find out over dinner.

(Picks up the bottle)

And don’t kill any more brain cells. You clearly cannot afford the loss.

Copyright 1990, 2013 by Scott Ross

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