THEATRE / The cutting charm of a gay blade: Paul Taylor on Ron Vawter's solo pieces at the ICA about Roy Cohn and Jack Smith, who both died of Aids

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YOU were born in 1927, you're a promiscuous but closet homosexual and you want to make sure your secret doesn't get out: what should you do? How about becoming the leader of a right-wing crusade against civil liberties for gays and lesbians?

There's certainly a drastic logic to such a ploy - a bit like getting yourself elected pope to cover up compulsive Orange tendencies. And it worked, too, after a fashion. Roy Cohn, the New York Jewish lawyer who came to prominence in the 1950s as Joe McCarthy's counsel, was a vociferous anti-gay spokesman (despite frequent same-sex sex and record-breaking attendances at La Cage aux Folles) and died of Aids at the age of 59. He's the subject of the first in Ron Vawter's fascinating diptych of solo pieces now to be seen at the ICA in London.

The second half also focuses on a white homosexual male who died of Aids in the Eighties, but there, you might assume, the similarities crash to a halt. Jack Smith, the downtown avant-garde gender-bending performance artist was 'out' like a gardenia in June, being to inhibition roughly what 'Bubbles' Rothermere was to a discreet dress-sense.

As acted by Vawter (who also, he announces, has Aids), the two men seem, however, to be strangely complementary figures, in that both represent extreme and perhaps scary reactions to society's repression of the homosexual. Cohn is warped by denial but has (until right at the end) a successful power-broking career, while Smith, as Vawter incarnates him, seems to have taken private liberation to a self-ghettoising degree - all dressed up (in 'Sheikh-of-Araby' trash-flash) and nowhere to go.

Roy Cohn achieved posthumous fame on stage recently in Tony Kushner's award-winning Angels in America, where he features as a transfixing symbol of the misuse of power in the Reagan-Bush era. Chillingly unforgettable was the moment when his doctor edged towards telling him he had Aids and Cohn retaliated by summarily redefining homosexuality in terms of having 'zero clout' rather than as a matter of sexual orientation. 'Roy Cohn is not a homosexual,' he tendentiously insisted. 'Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.'

Showing us Cohn as he delivered a 1978 banquet speech championing family values and vilifying gays and communists, the monologue here presents a somewhat less driven, mythic figure and suffers perhaps because the real-life hypocrisies on such occasions were of a blatancy that can sound a bit sledgehammer and over-convenient when put into a play. With a broad Bronx conk, and a creepy half-schmoozing half-hectoring hand-on-hip manner, Vawter fleshes out well the self-deception behind the deception, the best bits being those where Cohn is clearly unaware of the mounting contradictions or of just how much is being betrayed.

On, for example, 'consenting' gay sex: 'Where does consenting come in when you're acting under a compulsion?' he scoffs, forgetting that if any life is governed by compulsion, it's his. On two rather heavy-handed occasions, the flow is interrupted by a weird out-of-time sequence when Cohn drops the mask, pours himself a glass of water, mops his lips and then stares directly at the audience as though we are the people who will force him to resume his act.

Jack Smith's attitude to his audience is more pettish, a case of 'why did you have to come along and spoil everything'. Fussily fiddling with his kitschy robes and props, or flashing up bizarre slides of himself stalking a toy penguin through Amsterdam, Vawter's Smith performs the paradoxical stunt of seeming at once a peeved, attention-seeking solipsist. Would you rather be Cohn or Smith? Neither, puh-leeze.

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