Review by Steve Desroches
Jerker, the current production at the Provincetown Theater, is also known by its alternative and thoroughly detailed title Jerker, or The Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty. And indeed that is an apt description of this unabashed, erotic, and surprisingly tender one-act play by Robert Chesley.
Written and first produced in 1986, Jerker features two gay men, J. R. (Joe MacDougall) and Bert (Stephen Walker), who, through a series of phone conversations, establish a friendship that is initially erotic in nature, but evolves into exactly what the two men need as San Francisco is plunged into crisis with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the corresponding homophobia and ignorant moralism that accompanied it during the bleak Reagan years. At the onset of the play the two characters engage in phone sex. It is explicit to the point of being disarming, but that seems to be the point as the playwright uses it as a device to break down discomfort, shame, and stigma regarding sex between men. It’s activism and a response to the destructive puritanism of its day, but feels sadly relevant as homophobia and a cultural immaturity regarding gay sex emerges in response to the monkeypox outbreak.
Jerker is undoubtedly a bold choice by the Provincetown Theater, beyond the raw sexuality and nudity in the performance. What makes it so daring is that it taps into the aggressive and unapologetic spirt of ACT UP and Queer Nation, two activist groups that achieved so much as well as challenged conventional thinking, even within the LGBTQ community. To say Jerker is jarring would be apt, but not in a pejorative way. For audiences, particularly gay men, it can open wounds as well as mental caverns long thought to be boarded shut. In its way Jerker is of its time, but this production, directed by David Drake and performed in the round, transcends the decades as it moves toward the universality within the story. At a time of enormous pressure, how do these two men find love, for someone else and for themselves, while also embracing sex and the culture of gay men without giving into to falsehoods, lies, and hateful fairy tales, all in a time of plague and governmental and cultural oppression? Jerker is theater that challenges, and that’s always a good thing. It’s the kind of story you fall asleep thinking about and wake up with new viewpoints and considerations. Above all else Jerker is masterfully acted by MacDougall and Walker, opening up a complicated humanity of these two characters making them fully realized and allowing room for the thread of the show to be less about sex, and more about the human condition.
Jerker runs at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St., Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m. until September 1 (No show Carnival Parade day, Thursday, August 18. Added show Friday, August 19). Tickets ($40) are available at the box office and online at provincetowntheater.org. For more information call 508.487.7487.