Lights up on the outside patio of Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, fronting busy Commonwealth Avenue. A bank clock next door shows the time (10:30 a.m.) and temperature (82 degrees). Enter Joel Beers: striking GQ looks, brilliant, compassionate seeker of truth and beauty. He spots Dave Barton, sinister-looking former punk rocker and Orange County Act-Up co-founder, thumbing through a copy of the Los Angeles Times' Sunday Calendar section, scoffing at theater reviews. Barton sips coffee. On the table is the two-disc soundtrack of Rent. Beers eyes the CD warily. He approaches and sets his pad of paper on the table.Beers: Hey, Dave.Barton: Hey, Joel.[beat]Beers: I don't know how the fuck to do this.Barton: Me, neither. . . . How about an exchange of e-mails?Beers: Too late-'90s. How about we set it up like a debate, with the ghost of Jonathan Larson as moderator?Barton: I'd like to avoid that.Beers: I won't make fun of him. He'll just have to call the debate short on account of a really bad headache.Barton: I don't think so.Beers: We could just start out talking and see where that leads.Barton: That's cool with me.Beers: Okay. Dave, a national touring production of Rent opened Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for a two-week run. After seeing the show in San Diego last summer, I wrote that it was an overrated, overhyped piece of shit. You, after seeing the same show a couple of months later in Los Angeles, had a quite different opinion. You liked it. And you're someone whose opinion I respect. So my question to you is simple: Are you a fucking idiot?Barton: Forgetting for a moment that you're a hypocrite who would never admit to liking something so many other people appreciate, I'll say this about the show: to some degree it's a revolutionary musical, and one I hope signals baby steps toward better, more topical and more serious musicals.Beers: Revolutionary like the Bay of Pigs?Barton: It's flawed, yes, primarily due to the death of its creator-had he lived, he might have fixed those problems-but I think it has touched a chord in a lot of people. The fact that a mass amount of fanatical people are following it has got to mean something.Beers: There were mass amounts of followers in Guyana, too.[Barton laughs grudgingly as he fondles the Rent disc.]Beers: How loud do you listen to your stereo?Barton: I've still got my hearing.Beers: Because I have a theory. A friend of mine who doesn't see many musicals really liked Rent because it was the loudest thing he's ever heard in the theater. It reminded him of a rock concert.Barton: It does have a rock-concert feel to it in the sense that it brings people together. And they're coming together over very serious subject matter. Rent has songs dealing with AIDS, it portrays gay and lesbian affection without apology, it talks about poverty and homelessness-things I've never seen approached in musical theater.Beers: Sure, Rent's one of the first major musicals to deal with these issues. That's a good thing. But all Rent does is pay lip service to hot-button emotional issues; it never aspires to anything more. It feels like a bunch of Gap-wearing, whining, Real World wannabe artists pissing and moaning about not being able to make their crappy art because they're not being subsidized by a society that doesn't appreciate their “alternative lifestyles,” instead of going out and working even harder for what they believe in.Barton: Spoken like a truly aspiring not-so-young-anymore Republican.Beers: Did you care about the characters?Barton: Yes.Beers: I didn't. Seems to me any piece that wins a Pulitzer Prize should have memorable characters, but I felt Rent's menagerie was incredibly superficial and loathsome.Barton: I don't expect deep characters in a musical. Any time you've got so many people onstage, the best you can hope for is isolated moments of character, and I think Rent does that very well.Beers: Another thing that royally pisses me off is how the mainstream media is trumpeting Rent as a coming of age for Gen-X. If I hear the phrase “the Hair of the '90s” one more time, I'm going to puke. This is a musical that is supposedly about my generation, yet there was nothing I could identify with or feel connected to.Barton: Your first mistake is trying to identify with a musical.Beers: Okay, I'll give you that one-the musical is, after all, an inherently stupid and silly art form. But Rent raises all these issues that really do affect so-called Gen-Xers: the pursuit of art in a materialistic culture, sexual identity, drug abuse and so on. But they are broached in such a simplistic fashion: heroin-chic poser artists in New York are cool, and everyone else is bad.Barton: Yes, in many ways, Rent is a remedial treatment, but I think that's okay. People who don't have an understanding of lives different from their own have to start somewhere outside their frames of reference. For better or for worse, Rent may be how Mr. and Mrs. Middle America are first going to see gay and lesbian affection onstage.It's also the way that many young people will be exposed to the life of artists. Yes, the art the artists in the show create isn't all that great, but look at it as a primer. If it's a primer that inspires people to create something beautiful in a world that isn't, then it does its job as far as I'm concerned.[Beers almost chokes on “beautiful.” He recovers.]Beers: Let's talk about the music.Barton: Gladly. Usually when I go to a musical, I'm looking at the program counting the songs off. I didn't feel like that in this one. I think there's a real variety of popular music here, from disco and ballads to hard rock. And you can hear musical-theater traces, too, from Sondheim to Godspell.Beers: I agree with you that the soundtrack has a variety of music. And each of those songs is emblematic of the worst qualities of each of those genres.[Barton laughs and glances at his watch.]Beers: Speaking of the rock thing, many people are championing Rent as a way of bringing rock audiences into the theater. But is that even a worthwhile goal? Look at Tommy: the musical version neutered a fantastic piece of rock opera.Barton: We agree on that. Pete Townshend was one of my heroes, and I still like the Who, but I'll never forgive him for selling out the ending of Tommy.Beers: But I don't know if there's any other way to handle rock in a musical-theater format, at least not the musical theater of big halls and mass audiences. Rock is dirty and dark; it's raunchy and revolutionary. It belongs in crowded bars and arenas with sweaty people dancing and screaming. Musical theater is the Orange County Performing Arts Center. I don't know if they belong together.Barton: Some people say politics doesn't belong in the theater, or sexuality. . . . I think we need to bring all those barriers down.Beers: I'm all for breaking down barriers. I'm just not sure if rock music and musical theater are compatible, or even possible. Instead of nitro and glycerin, it's oil and water. I mean, just because Instant Karma can be played on the accordion doesn't mean it should be.Barton: I just think the more we break down boundaries, the more we blend or blur things together, the healthier we're going to be.Beers: I'd argue that the more we blend and blur, the more we lose ourselves, our voices, and that's a real bone of contention with me and Rent: it seems to have no soul, no voice of its own. Especially for a show that is about love and death and screwing and doing drugs and the risks of that behavior-any piece that deals with issues like that should be held to a higher standard.Barton: We just see it differently, that's all. I still think of Rent as a signal toward something clearer. It got me excited about the possibilities of musical theater.Beers: It got me excited about leaving the theater.[Barton looks very pointedly at his watch.]Beers: All right. One last question posed to someone who appreciates Rent: What's the underlying message?Barton: Love the people in your life. You don't know how long you have them.[Beers gags at “love,” begins choking on his own bile, and doubles over in agony. Suddenly, the cast of Rent appears, softly singing “Seasons of Love.” Beers is bathed in a golden pool of light as the cast approaches, tenderly lifting him in their arms. Barton joins in on the song. He approaches and plunges a coffee spoon into Beers' throat. The cast begins flaying the flesh from Beers' bones as the lights fade to black.]Rent at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Thru Aug. 16. $21-$52.50; $20 tickets available on day of performance only, two hours prior to each show.