Memories of the AIDS epidemic triggered by the COVID lockdown in ‘Not About Me’ at NYC’s Theater for the New City

With the shutdown of theaters, sheltering in place, and isolation during the first two and a half years of the COVID-19 pandemic came a lot of time to think. For Cuban American playwright, director, actor, and educator Eduardo Machado, now 69, lockdown triggered recollections of the other devastating pandemic of his lifetime, the AIDS epidemic. Presented by Theater for the New City with the support of Suite 524, Not About Me, written and directed by Machado, is a deeply personal memory play that recounts and examines his rise to success, the life he led, and the people he lost, which, as the title suggests, is not just about him. It also hits close to home for everyone who lived through the 1980s, experienced the emergence and identification of HIV, the panic it caused, and the loss of close friends and loved ones to the deadly virus, and considers how we dealt with it and the changes we need to make.

Michael Domitrovich, Heather Velazquez, Charles Manning, Drew Valins, Sharon Ullrick, Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, and Mateo d’Amato. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The format of the work combines segments of direct address to the audience, enactments of Machado’s reminiscences, and video clips (projection design by Bird Rogers) that convey the period and its hedonistic freedom, with a cast of seven bringing the characters, their inter-relationships, the era, and behind-the-scenes insights into the experimental theater and film communities of NYC and LA to life. Led by Mateo d’Amato as the playwright, the intimate portrayal is explicit and honest, showing the good and bad points, the love and conflicts, and the range of emotions experienced, from camaraderie to jealousy, commitment to abandonment, joy to anger, while tracing the evolution of the writer and his sexual identity (from a married, closeted bisexual to openly gay), the growing threat of the mysterious disease that didn’t yet have a name but was killing increasing numbers of gay men, and the decimation of his circle.

As Eduardo’s dear friend, mentor, and revered actress Marjorie, Sharon Ullrick (filling in for Crystal Field on the date I attended) delivered a fully rounded and engaging performance, from their laugh-out-loud funny warm-ups and rehearsals of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, to her sage and adamant advice on being an actor, to her steady decline from terminal liver cancer but determination to live out what time she has left to the fullest. Heather Velazquez as Donna – the married young actress with whom Machado has an ongoing liaison – is determined to have them divorce their respective spouses to be together, and in one of the most hilarious scenes, to undergo a ridiculous ritual to cleanse them of their bisexuality once AIDS is on the rise.

Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Charles Manning, Mateo d’Amato, and Drew Valins. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Along with d’Amato, Michael Domitrovich as Gerald, Ellis Charles Hoffmeister as Frank, Charles Manning as Tommy, and Drew Valins as Paul recreate the dancing, drinking, and drug use, flirtations, competition, and hook-ups of the gay club scene, as well as registering the shock of gay men dying from an unknown contagion, the fear, reality, and responses to being next, and the concern of having already spread it to their circle of friends and partners. Each brings a distinctive personality to their role and a specific believable reaction to their infection.

The compelling company is supported by period-style costumes by Kelsey Charter (at times revealing but with no nudity), dramatic lighting by Alex Bartenieff, sound by David Margolin Lawson and original music by Domitrovich, and a simple mostly bare-stage scenic design by Mark Marcante, with movable pieces of furniture that shift from a table and chairs, and, eventually, Marjorie’s wheelchair in rehearsals, to a platform bed for the various sexual encounters, set before a background scrim for the projections, a theatrical ghost light, and silhouettes.

For those who weren’t around at the time, Not About Me is an enlightening memoir and period piece; for those who were, it’s also a heartrendingly familiar and cathartic look back at the ‘80s and the human toll taken by AIDS, at a time when we’re all facing yet another deadly pandemic.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.

Not About Me plays through Sunday, February 5, 2023, at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, NYC. For tickets (priced at $18, Seniors/Students $10, plus fees), call the Box Office at (212) 254-1109, or go online. Masks are no longer required in the theater but are recommended.