If I were a travel writer I'd probably be telling you to be very careful about going to Beirut these days. But I'm a theater critic.

So why am I still advising you to avoid "Beirut"?It's because in this case "Beirut" has nothing to do with the Middle East. Rather, it is a controversial new play by Alan Bowne that is being produced through March 19 at the Salt Lake Acting Company's Marmelade Hill Center home. And I daresay that remodeled old LDS meetinghouse has never hosted anything quite like this before.

The play, set in a dark, dismal, futuristic version of New York City, presents a graphic view of a world in which rampant sexually transmitted diseases have turned sex into a capital crime. It focuses on the story of Torch (played by Zeke Totland), a young man carrying the virus who is sentenced to quarantine in a New York City sector called Beirut, and Blue (Sue Ball), a young woman who risks her life to be with him - and probably die with him - there.

All of this is told in a coarse, earthy style that stresses vulgar language, graphic dialogue, sex, nudity and emotional violence. The first thing one sees once the play's action begins is Torch rising from his bed and walking to a wash basin - naked. The last thing one sees as the lights dim on the 60-minute play is Torch and Blue together on the bed - making love.

Obviously, this is not a play that will suit everyone's taste.

To their credit, SLAC officials have been promoting "Beirut" as an "R-rated" drama. They have not attempted to portray the piece as anything other than what it is. Still, more than a few audience members reacted with audible shock Friday night at the first glimpse of Torch's bare backside. And the second glimpse. And the third. And the time a naked Torch turns to face the audience briefly in the dim light. (There is no female nudity in the play, although Ball is skimpily dressed throughout the show.)

But there are more than moralistic reasons to avoid SLAC's "Beirut." Bowne's characters are shallow, empty people who are impossible to care anything about. The dialogue sounds like it was written by a crusading physician, littered as it is with medical factoids, philosophical jargon and angst-ridden self-consciousness that all but shouts "Oh, why didn't we practice safe sex when we had a chance?"

The onstage performances, while adequate, do little to overcome the script's weaknesses. Both Totland and Ball possess apparent acting skills, but they are in over their heads here. They work awfully hard, but it is readily apparent physically and emotionally that they are just acting, interpreting already superficial characters superficially. The result is that we never quite believe the feelings, and we never quite buy into the situation.

Director Ed Gryska must shoulder some of the blame for that, since interpretation is ultimately a directorial responsibility. But his staging is simple and effective, and the technical aspects of the production - including Corey Dangerfield's garbage-on-chain-link set and Megan McCormick's lighting - are moody and evocative.

That isn't enough to redeem this play, however. In fact, I can't think of anyone - or any group - to whom I would recommend "Beirut." Still, I don't condemn SLAC for attempting the piece. I'm sure they went into it as a theatrical challenge, an opportunity for the company - and maybe the community 4 to stretch and grow. It's just that those aesthetic aspirations were hijacked somewhere along the way.

Which, when you stop and think about it, is only appropriate for a play called "Beirut."