The play begins on Christmas Eve. Mark (Brian Glingor), an aspiring filmmaker, and his roommate Roger (Constantine Maroulis) brave the chill of winter in New York City in their unheated 11th Street industrial loft. The two discuss their friend Benny’s (Daryl C. Brown) recent demand that Mark and Roger pay their share of rent for the apartment, which Benny has just bought with plans of converting into a state-of-the-art recording studio. Roger, who occasionally strums an old guitar in hopes of stumbling upon “one great song,” is HIV positive. He’s also depressed over his girlfriend’s suicide and has not left the apartment in six months.
Later, the audience is introduced to Mimi (Jaime Lee Kirchner), an exotic dancer; Angel (Damien Deshaun Smith), a transvestite; Collins (Marcus Paul James), a “vagabond anarchist”; Maureen (Leslie Diamond), Mark’s ex-girlfriend who currently dates JoAnne (Rebecca Jones); and JoAnne, the stereotypical Harvard Law School graduate. Together, the young adults comprise a bohemian family of sorts. Roger becomes romantically involved with Mimi, Angel with Collins, and Maureen with JoAnne. Interwoven with the convoluted plot of threatened evictions, AIDS support-group meetings, and feckless protests against Benny’s entrepreneurship lie the high points and low points of the three couples’ relationships. The only smooth courtship is that of Collins and Angel, which seems to coast on the wings of Angel’s lightheartedness, generosity, and a preference for dancing on tables in his short skirt and Christmas stilettos. Thus, the romances of “Rent” are puzzling at best, and completely off-putting and unrealistic at worst. Mark and JoAnne bond over a discussion of Maureen’s unfaithful ways in “Tango Maureen.” During the song, JoAnne denounces Maureen’s nauseating infidelities and flirtation with men and women alike. By the time the chords die down and the Mark and JoAnne crescendo into their final long note, JoAnne is back under Maureen’s charms with little more than an “Aw, Pooky!” from the philanderous temptress.
Similarly, Roger and Mimi’s relationship suffers from mistrust and problems spurred by the reluctance of both to commit. Though the physical attraction is evident as soon as the two meet, it seems a little creepy that Mimi reminds Roger of the suicidal ex-girlfriend who gave him HIV. Nonetheless, they manage to date for a while. The second act, which details the life of the artists during the year after the eviction drama, reveals that Roger and Mimi have broken up by the end of the summer and Mimi has taken up with nouveau riche Benny (of rent-demanding fame). It’s not this trope of bitter breakup/rebound relationship with a rival that’s most annoying; it’s the cheap ending to which poor Mimi is consigned. Her HIV, emotional scars, and feelings of low self-worth are haphazardly combined to create a treacly, Kodak moment ending.
Indubitably, “Rent” contains some real gems. The acting is for the most part satisfying, the dialogue is at times clever, and several original songs such as the second act’s “Seasons of Love” surely will become, if they are not already, classics of the showtune canon. But it’s the little missteps that rankle. The fact that Roger conspicuously turns to sit with his back to the audience and the conductor ceremoniously cues the orchestra every time he picks up his guitar, for one. The fact that an evil-looking, boho-hating guy whose last name is, seemingly symbolically, Coffin (Benny), is inexplicably sometimes befriended by Mark and Roger, sometimes beleaguered by them. And most of all, it’s cheap plot tricks like Mimi’s channeling of Lazarus in the final scene in order to stage a triumphant, though wildly unlikely, return to the realm of the living after a cliche trip down a long white tunnel.
“Rent” is enjoyable and engrossing to watch. It is best viewed on an impressionistic basis, however. Immerse yourself in the high kicks and high notes of the choreography and musical score and put plot impracticalities and character analysis out of mind; the result is a thoughtless good time.