Naked Laughter

Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey is a charming and witty little comedy about AIDS. That unlikely combination is made more remarkable by the play's theatrical exuberance, which is amply evident in the current production at Stages, the southwest premiere of this 1993 off-Broadway hit. Rudnick's characters carry on as if camp never died, and his zinging one-liners reinvigorate a style at least as old as Oscar Wilde. Rudnick describes his play wryly as being about "the triumph of love, friendship and sweaters over death," and its spirit, in a time of seemingly relentless dirges, is in a different mood: "Let's face the music -- and dance."

Rudnick's premise is abrupt and blunt. Gay protagonist Jeffrey (Joe Kirkendall), once known as "the pushover of Lower Manhattan," bewildered and benumbed by the complications of desire in the age of AIDS, swears off sex entirely. A quick and comic intro establishes the tone, as Jeffrey moves from bed to bed amid growing worries about illness and condoms and blood tests, and suddenly he decides it's just not worth it anymore. Sex, which he once celebrated as "the reason to grow up" and the radiant evidence of a benevolent creation ("the body's built-in capacity for joy"), has become what it was never meant to be: "safe, or negotiated, or fatal." His characteristically absolutist alternative is total abstinence.

What might sound like a formula for chaste fundamentalism becomes a surprisingly funny evocation of the contemporary sexual landscape, and though its incarnation here is gay, Jeffrey's dilemma is obviously polymorphous. Speaking directly to the audience, Jeffrey mocks the notion that "all gay men are obsessed with sex" with a more resigned wisdom: "All men are obsessed with sex." The jokes keep coming: "All gay men are obsessed with opera -- which is not the same thing, because you can have good sex." Having established this dishy tone early on, Rudnick rides it throughout, convinced that, in his words, "a wisecrack is not an evasion, but a weapon; smart remarks can defeat even a hospital's green-gowned terror."

Within this defiantly comic context, Jeffrey embarks on a picaresque journey to emotional enlightenment. Once compulsively and joyously sexual, now spooked by disease, he turns his compulsiveness to exercise -- only to get hit on in the weight room. Predictably, he falls hard for Steven (Kent Johnson) and spends the rest of the play trying to avoid the inevitable. The scenes jump from the comically ordinary (Jeffrey's days as an "actor/waiter") to the comically absurd (an imaginary game show called It's Just Sex!), getting progressively darker but never losing their sardonic edge. Jeffrey becomes a sort of Everyman in the Valley of Death, trying hard to avoid survivor's guilt ("I can't keep passing out hors d'oeuvres in a graveyard"). But his friends insist on countering his "terminal gloom" with hard-won and resilient humor: "It's not a cure for AIDS, but it's the opposite of AIDS."

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Bringing off this gallows comedy is no small trick, but the company here, under the direction of Michael Scheman (who assistant-directed the New York production) is as sharp as any I've seen at Stages in the last couple of seasons. Kirkendall's straight-arrow good looks and casual charm are smoothly effective, and he is supported by a strong crew spinning off his direct central performance. Kent Johnson handles cleanly and straightforwardly the role of Steven, Jeffrey's would-be romantic partner.

But these two principals are virtually overshadowed by all the campy business going on, to great delight, around them. Randall Jobe seizes his comic turns -- ranging from an "Indian" waiter to a cornpone cocksman to a pre-operative transsexual lesbian -- with his customary vengeance, and he is duly matched, in a series of bits nearly as delicious, by Adrian Cardell Porter. Connie Cooper is sharply-tuned in a bevy of female roles, running the gamut from a bullying New Age guru to a game-show hostess to the transsexual's devoted mama. Jeff Baldwin also goes through chameleonic changes and is especially effective as Father Dan, a randy priest with a theology based upon Broadway musicals. Father Dan begins as a caricature but becomes, in Rudnick's slightly surreal universe, a fount of pastoral wisdom: "blasphemy is the refusal of joy."

And it's a particular pleasure to see perennial TUTS stalwart Paul Hope get a role he can shine in, as Sterling, an interior designer who also begins as a fey cartoon but ends as a moral center for Jeffrey's world. He and his lover, Darius (Adrian Walter), a chorus boy full of maddening and sweet ignorance, dance an affectionate duet around Jeffrey's desperate purity, making it seem hollow and silent indeed. If Jeffrey wants to hear the music, he will have to join the dance.

By the time Rudnick gets through with him, what first had looked for Everyman Jeffrey like sensible self-defense comes to seem a form of spiritual negation, even cowardice. Jeffrey's denial of sexuality cuts him off not only from disease and loss but from his friends, who want to live in and embrace a world of affection and desire; his frenzied if understandable denial of death is simply inhuman. We shall all be dead pretty soon, but that is insufficient reason to pretend we're dead already. Jeffrey begins in fear and ends in affirmation, and it's brimmingly full of two old and reliable friends-in-need: sex and laughter.

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