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 an excerpt from the first act.
(A hospital waiting room. SHEREE and JO sit. They look exhausted, on edge. JO lights a cigarette.)
Jo, please don’t smoke now!
(JO stares at her a beat, then puts the cigarette back into the pack.)
(Beat. JO laughs suddenly and sharply)
(Fighting to stay light, and losing)
I was just thinking of a summer stock production I saw Sandy in once. The Ritz. In Provincetown, no less. Sandy was playing the detective with the falsetto voice. You know how they’re all wearing those towels? He had to make a running entrance and when he came on, the towel came off. Fwoop! But somehow he’d kicked it and it went under a bed. So, there he was, standing in his jockstrap, trying desperately to fish this towel out from under the bed with his foot. Finally, he gave up. He shrugged a bit … got on his knees by the bed, turned his back … and bent way over. Got a standing ovation.
(She turns to SHEREE, her lower lip trembling. SHEREE embraces her. NICK enters. He is distraught. He sees the women and looks as though he’d like to join them, but holds back, waiting. SHEREE looks up and sees him.)
(JO starts at the name, breaking the embrace.)
I just heard, I—how bad is it, Sher[ee]—?
He’s dying, you asshole, that’s how bad.
No! To hell with your politesse! “I just heard, I didn’t know.” You knew. You had to know. How can you even show your fucking face here? Poor, martyred Nick.
You have to believe me. I did just find out. I haven’t—I didn’t —
Bullshit you didn’t. Lingering colds, swollen glands, a fever that wouldn’t go away—oh, maybe you didn’t hear the actual diagnosis, but one way or another, Nick, you did know. So what he wasn’t your lover anymore? He was still Sandy. And he was still in love with you. Why, I can’t imagine, but that was his problem.
(Correcting herself as if to ward off the inevitable)
Is. Is his problem. And you couldn’t even look in on him? There’s every chance he got this from you. God knows who you were fucking, but he was faithful to you, you bastard.
(Gathers up her coat and starts out, turning to SHEREE)
I’m going out. I’m sorry, but if I stay in the same room with him much longer, I may puke all over these nice, clean floors.
(She starts to exit)
(Whirling on him)
What was it, Nick? He remind you of your future?
(She storms out. A lengthy silence. SHEREE sits.)
I’d apologize for her, but I happen to agree with most of it.
I’m not seeking absolution.
Good. Who told you?
One of his actor friends.
You hear so many stories about actors’ shittiness to each other. Not with Sandy. They’ve treated him like … a princeling. There are several in there with him right now, holding vigil. We’d like to be with him every minute, but we owe his friends some privacy.
Is—uh, is David—?
He’s gone out. I should warn you, he’s liable to be back any time.
Is Sandy in much pain?
(Trying to reign in her grief)
No. I doubt he’d be aware of it if he were. But he’s barely alive. They don’t expect he’ll last the night.
I don’t suppose they’d let me see him?
(A bitter laugh)
Nick. He wouldn’t even know you were there.
Who’s been—who took care of him?
When it was obvious he was unable to work any longer, David came up from Washington. He pretty much handled everything these past few months. No one would bond Sandy for film work, and even the most well-intentioned stage directors aren’t too keen on hiring someone who might not make it to opening night. He wasn’t very solvent at the end. So David assumed financial responsibility. Although I really don’t think he could afford to. With the drugs, the hospital stays—I don’t mean to canonize David; he merely did what you didn’t.
(An awkward pause. NICK changes the subject)
I never thanked you for getting me out of my contract with Clifton.
No, you never did. And that’s something else you should have done. You can thank Jo, actually. She’s on good terms with one of our lawyers. He finessed it. Only, I should add, to save my hide. I’m lucky Clifton’s had an exceptionally good year, so there was minimal hair-pulling and breast-beating. His forgetting? That’s another matter. He’s never liked the imprint to begin with, and your behavior has not helped. My time with the firm is probably contingent on end-of-the-year figures. Buy a lot of our books for Christmas presents. Maybe you can work it off that way.
(She stands, furious, and starts to exit. She stops, turns and speaks, but not really to NICK)
Funny. I’ve never known such calm as I do when I’m in that room. How can you be sitting next to someone who’s letting go of life and know nothing but serenity? I’ve heard of people becoming like light at the end, but I never thought I’d see it for myself. Sandy’d be so pleased if he knew how—easy—he was making it for the rest of us.
(She starts to say something more but is overcome. She exits. NICK leans forward in his seat, face in hands. Silence. DAVID enters carrying a brown paper bag and lacking any trace of his usual exuberance. He sees NICK, stops, then moves to the seat.)
(NICK looks up)
David, I’m so sorry. What I said, I—
I don’t want to hear it! Do you understand? Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it!
(His face goes slack again and his body sags.)
I don’t have any more patience, Nicky. No more patience, no more energy, no more … I’m tired. Mary and Joseph, I’m so tired. I have spent the last five years of my life being fucked by murderers, and I just don’t want to know.
Davy, I don’t want him to die.
(After a beat, evenly)
Well, you’d better get used to the idea.
I know I’m a bastard—
I had to stop grieving for him a long, long time ago, or I’d have been no good to him at all.
(During this speech, he sinks to his knees)
You think you’re hurting, baby? You think Nick Halpern is the only man in this city carrying around a kit-bag of loss? Come to my office sometime, Nicky darling, if you really want a liberal education. Listen to a few of the messages on my answering machine if you need any proof that the world just wants to break your heart. I’m sorry,
but I just don’t have any tears left for you. You’re only losing a lover. An ex-lover, to be precise. I’ve lost half a world. And I’m one of the luckier ones. And my waking and sleeping nightmare is that one day there’ll be one last voice on the machine: mine. And then no more voices at all.
So I beg and plead and play by their rules and observe their protocol and I’m so ashamed of making nice with killers all day I want to take up a baseball bat and start bashing in heads! My poisons know no antidote—and you sit there expecting me to care about your problems when all you’ve done for three years is sleep with the enemy? You better face it, Nicky doll: no one believes you’re doing research any more. I’m not sure what amazes me more—what you’ve done, or the fact that I’m even telling you this. Because you really could not care less, could you? Once your consciousness is raised, Nicky, it’s supposed to stay raised. Not dip whenever it’s convenient.
(NICK says nothing. A pause. JO returns. She sees DAVID and goes to him. They embrace. SHEREE comes in and stands. They look at her. She shakes her head and her face falls apart. She rushes to JO and DAVID with her arms outstretched. They stand holding onto one another. NICK rises, looking as though he’d like to join their circle of grief and knowing he’s not entitled to share in i. Then he tears away, exiting. JO, DAVID and SHEREE finally break their emrace and SHEREE takes JO’s hand, moving upstage. JO takes DAVID’s hand and DAVID picks up the paper bag and follows her. As they move upstage holding hands they look like children, lost in the woods.)
Copyright 1990, 2013 by Scott Ross