In 1996 the landmark rock musical about AIDS was remarkable for how well it reflected downtown life at the time. (Hold the snark about how much grittier it really was downtown. We’re talking about Broadway, where a stage adaptation of Big mounted the same season and was considered risky, and the other big offerings were revivals of Hello Dolly! and The King and I.)
In its new incarnation, Rent remains largely unchanged in its content, although like everything these days it's been downsized to a 500-seat off-Broadway theater. But its tale of youthful alienation and artists struggling to survive in a brutal era filled with drugs and disease seems like a time capsule from a long-forgotten age.
As Rakoff’s collection moves towards arguments against the constructed worlds of Rent and of LDS Utah, though, the sense of Rakoff’s book being hard to argue with becomes a weakness, not a strength. (This is leaving aside, for the moment, his lengthy condemnation of the Bush administration in the first essay—none of Rakoff’s demographic will disagree, but some may be hungry for some fresher red meat.)
If The New York Times' staid Metropolitan Diary dealt with public defecation and anonymous groping, it might read a bit like the script for Tales from the Tunnel, a collection of anecdotes about the subways put together into a play currently running off-Broadway.