When Robert Chesley’s one-act, Jerker, exploded on the Celebration Theatre’s stage in July 1986, AIDS was becoming a backdrop to a growing number of plays, if not their main theme. Today we think of that period’s gay theater as being defined by such lofty stuff as Bent, The Normal Heart and The Lisbon Traviata, yet many small “lavender” stages were preoccupied with escapist same-sex dating comedies, cross-dressed classics or stories about confused straights being guided out of the closet by understanding homosexuals. (It’s tempting to think that in writing Jerker, along with Night Sweat and Dog Plays, Chesley, a San Francisco theater critic, was filling the void he faced onstage every weekend.) However, by the end of the ’80s, there was little room for escapism in queer theater.

Jerker both anticipated and accelerated this change, sounding an alarm about AIDS and bringing an urgent examination of gay relationships to the stage. The two-character play, currently revived at the Space at Moving Arts, unfolds in the form of 20 phone calls between two strangers, J.R. (Joe Gill) and Bert (Dean Howell). Their conversations begin as shared sexual fantasies, during which the San Francisco men jerk off as they create scenarios in which they tie one another up, cut off boxer shorts or squeeze balls. The more aggressive J.R. enjoys a vague advantage in this relationship because he’s actually seen Bert, the “receiver” of his calls, in sex bars around town — this is how he got Bert’s phone number. The older Bert wants to know more details about J.R., whose unswerving allegiance to sexual anonymity forms Jerker’s ambiguous credo – on the one hand Chesley defiantly revels in the Castro Street bacchanalia that was San Francisco in the 1970s, but seems to build a case against the emotional detachment it spawned.

Before long, it’s clear that Bert is depressed over a friend’s AIDS-related decline and that he himself is stricken with the virus. From this point onward the men build the kind of relationship of trust and endearment that traditionally most males only know on a battlefield. As a Talking Heads song of the time would put it, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

Jerker’s power lies in its muscular simplicity. The play’s mechanics are basic but unfailing — a recurring conversation in which bits of information and feelings are grudgingly revealed to the characters and audience. Except for J.R.’s poetic recounting of a very detailed dream, the language is stripped down and images are in the real-time here and now. The few background visuals consist of Vietnam vet J.R.’s forearm crutches and — in this production — Bert’s plaid-and-denim after-five wear. This utilitarian milieu is a little unexpected, given that the script comes with a jokey subtitle (The Helping Hand) which is followed by a much longer descriptive sub-subtitle, along with Chesley’s one indulgence — Bert’s overlong outgoing phone message of Judy Garland singing “Do It Again.” It’s almost as though Chesley’s florid impulses were held in check by what he knew to be his play’s grave and overriding responsibility.

Jerker’sdialogue is also frankly pornographic — it’s easy to see why Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission put the heat on radio station KPFK for broadcasting parts of it in 1986. Even today, there’s a well-shut-my-mouth reaction among audiences when its members hear J.R. direct Bert to ejaculate into his boxers (and to keep them soiled and handy for future chats), or when Bert says, “Gonna take the head of that cock in my palm and squeeze it, let it slide into that foreskin, knead it, yank on it real gentle . . .”

Chesley created an uncompromising stage world with its own vocabulary and rules. There are no straight male friends or supportive fag hags in Jerker, no monologues about unfeeling fathers or high school bullies. Neither is there chatter about clothes or cuisine, real estate or Russian River getaways, as though Chesley knew that AIDS had transformed the Castro District from a golden ghetto into a gay Theresienstadt. J.R. and Bert live the night before the world ends and, because of this, their dialogue is heroically profane in its cry for life and its indictment of apathy.

Director Michael Kearns has a long association with the play, having directed its premiere and subsequent revivals in 1988 (in which he appeared as J.R.) and 1996. He stages this 20th-anniversary production mostly as a readers theater presentation — there’s very limited stage movement, although the actors don’t really refer to their scripts. For all that, Kearns (who’ll take over as Bert for the rest of the run) and his cast make sure the play retains its visceral power from start to blackout. While fully staged versions have J.R. and Bert appear nude or seminude under the sheets of their beds, Gill and Howell are dressed in black and stand at reading stations facing out at the house.

It’s a cunning directorial choice and pays off on a couple of levels, not the least of which is to bring out the humor that lurks behind the script’s more overt comedy. Instead of pantomiming masturbation, Kearns’ actors find other ways to indicate that they are jerking themselves. (Jumping up and down, making seemingly nonsexual hand gestures.) This sometimes leaves the impression that Bert is absent-mindedly scratching his ear while professing to J.R. his commitment to their phone-sex games, which leavens the evening a little.

Perhaps Kearns has Gill and Howell perform this way in order to bring the show into the schools, but I rather doubt that. A likelier explanation is that it humanizes the characters of a story that could, if played wrong, become ponderously bleak. Chesley, who died of AIDS in 1990, was capable of conjuring extremely gaunt emotional landscapes in his Dog Plays, but here it’s essential that the men display comedic charisma, and this they do exceedingly well. Both Gill and Howell have comfortably grown into their roles, and to see them perform in this hot, tight venue is to participate in a passionate, living work instead of viewing a museum piece.?

JERKER | By ROBERT CHESLEY | At THE SPACE AT MOVING ARTS, 1822 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake, (323) 856-6168 | Through September 30

LA Weekly