Vintage 'Steambath' still turning up heat on ideas

Forty years ago today, Bruce Jay Friedman's "Steambath" was running off-Broadway, with Hector Elizondo as the Puerto Rican attendant who turns out to be God and Anthony Perkins as a new arrival who begs to leave limbo for Earth.

It's hard to remember that, when the play opened, "gay" was just a synonym for cheerful, stockbrokers were almost universally respected, and no woman had intentionally appeared naked on television. (In fact, the first to do so was Valerie Perrine - in the 1973 PBS broadcast of "Steambath.")

Time magazine had run its audacious "Is God Dead?" cover in 1966, shocking readers who had never considered the possibility. All those elements turn up in this play, which sometimes seems quaintly grounded in the social uncertainty of the Nixon years yet still has a bracing freshness.

It takes place in a humidified limbo populated by two gay men, an ex-stockbroker, a guy with poor hygiene from The Greatest Generation (already ripe for a rib-poke in 1970), a rough-hewn man of the world, an empty-headed blonde and a new arrival named Tandy.

Tandy can't believe his life ended on the brink of self-fulfillment. Nor can he believe the janitor is God, even when the man barks words of destruction or redemption into a burping computer. But Tandy finally does the self-analysis necessary to move from this moist limbo into the mists beyond.

Christian Casper makes his Carolina Actors Studio Theatre debut as Tandy amid an ensemble of CAST veterans that includes J.R. Adduci as God and Bill McNeff and Jim Esposito as the old guys. (Tandy must ingratiate himself with people who knew each other before he arrived, so that's apt.)

If Casper, Adduci and Esposito give the most memorable performances, that's because the script is set up for them to do so. Shannon Wightman-Girard, whose once-notorious nude scene is shrouded in steam, is game as the dumb blonde, though the script gives her nothing significant to do.

More important than any of the characters, though, are the ideas. It was hard for people to accept in 1970 that the God they thought they knew might not see every sparrow's fall, or might interfere arbitrarily if he did. (It's just as hard for people to contemplate that now.)

But if we can't fathom any presumably divine plan, can we live with the idea that there might be no plan at all? Friedman suggests we can't do that and retain our sanity.

In the end, his play is a variation on the sad joke about love affairs: "Women - ya can't live with them, and ya can't kill them." Substitute "God" for "women," and you have an idea that still has the power to startle.