Recently, I watched a melodramatic but compelling TV movie called And Then There Was One. It featured an excellent performance by Amy Madigan as a young woman who falls in love, gets married, and has a child without knowing that she's carrying the AIDS virus. She endures the death of both her husband and baby daughter from the disease. Although the movie was well-written and poignant, sitting through such a story was about as delightful as having two root canals performed at the same time.
On the other hand, ACME Acting Company's production of Paul Rudnick's Obie-Award-winning Jeffrey is compelling and melodramatic, with no excellent performances. And while Jeffrey similarly concerns living and loving under the specter of AIDS, it contains the one essential element desperately missing from the TV movie A large doses of gruesome fun.
Rudnick, who worked on the script for Addams Family Values and wrote the light sit-com play I Hate Hamlet, is not a great talent, and probably has received more kudos for Jeffrey than he deserves. In fact, from Angels in America to As Is to The Normal Heart to Jeffrey, it seems the easiest way to gain recognition as a playwright these days is to write about AIDS and then hand over the proceeds of one or more performances to related charities. Angels in America may be an awe-inspiring work that survives the brutal test of time, but most of the other offerings -- including Jeffrey -- are merely contemporary phenomena.
In other words, Jeffrey is just a cut above I Hate Hamlet, a frothy but straight romantic comedy. There's certainly nothing wrong with this, but I fear that people might give the play too much credit and weight simply because they think they should. After watching the first few scenes, my honest reaction was that Neil Simon-type humor is recognizable even when the author writes from a gay perspective.
The title character is an attractive New York City man who has managed to remain HIV-negative in spite of his promiscuous behavior. Suddenly beset by the reality of illness, terrified by the sight of death in his immediate social circle, Jeffrey swears off sex. But soon afterward he meets hunky Steve, the man of his dreams. Steve is HIV-positive. This basic plot -- boy meets boy, boy can't have sex with boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back -- is subsidiary to a madcap array of skits that Rudnick composes around the main story, injecting wildly offbeat humor and spicing up the action with gay flavor.
The funniest of these skits contain viciously honest commentaries on society. When a tormented Jeffrey tries to find solace in church, he encounters a horny gay priest who believes in the divine power of musical theater and sees the devil as Andrew Lloyd Webber. When Jeffrey can't deal with his sexual frustration any more, he goes to a masturbation den, where young men indulge narcissism to an absurd extent. And during a phone call between Jeffrey and his Wisconsin-based parents, he fantasizes having a frank conversation with them, one in which his father asks him if he's "a top or a bottom" and his mother politely inquires if he likes it "when they shave their assholes." Through similarly X-rated action and dialogue, Rudnick makes important, cynical, and amusing statements about contemporary personal interactions.
Jeffrey's two closest friends -- interior decorator Sterling and Sterling's boyfriend Darius, a chorus boy from the Broadway production of Cats -- try to convince him to face the music and dance, to love Steve and accept the consequences, to choose quality of life over quantity. Rudnick posits this solution to the love/lust dilemma in the AIDS era, constantly emphasizing that humor must be invoked over tears. When Darius dies, Sterling collapses into grief, but Rudnick does not allow the audience to do the same; instead, he brings back the deceased dancer as an angel dressed in a furry white Cats costume. The sight gag is jarring, tasteless, and hilarious.
Flipping quickly from scene to skit to scene, the drama never lags, and the jokes, written from a distinctly acerbic point of view, are plentiful. But sometimes the play contains too much glib humor and not enough reality. The characters neatly suit the straight public's impression of gay men, as though Rudnick were more concerned with making the show a hit in Peoria -- as were the producers of the sanitized flick, Philadelphia -- than aggressively addressing gay issues. For example, Sterling is limp-wristed and obsessed with fashion; Darius is a fey little girl with a penis, not a man; and Steve pumps up his impressive body daily at an all-male gym.
Unlike Craig Lucas's brilliant motion picture, Longtime Companion, which portrays gay men as human beings with a wide variety of behaviors and attitudes -- just like straight people -- Jeffrey milks its fun from every snide stereotype ever conceived. Only the lead character acts like a real person, but as Rudnick has fashioned him, Jeffrey doesn't have any deep traits. He's so vacuous he becomes scarcely more than a plot device used to move along the action.
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These problems are exacerbated by Juan F. Cejas's direction and the cast's interpretation of the script. Although ACME never presents an amateurish production, Jeffrey could use a lot more fine-tuning. Almost all the actors ham up the already broad script to an uncomfortable pitch. Dan Kelley as the gay priest becomes so hysterical he appears to be insane rather than eccentric, and when he finally tries to explain to Jeffrey his take on God, the serious and poignant dialogue lacks impact. As Sterling, George Contini lisps and minces to the max. He also waits a beat before delivering his punch lines, as if he thinks the audience would be too stupid to laugh unless he said them with added emphasis. Kim Ostrenko, in a variety of off-the-wall female roles (from a sadistic evangelist to Jeffrey's mother), has done significantly better work in other ACME productions. Here, she pulls out all the stops and vamps her way so far over the top she becomes more embarrassing than amusing.
In short, Cejas and his actors don't trust Rudnick's script. They feel they must embellish the lines to make them funnier, thereby diminishing the play's biting sarcasm and pushing the sensitive scenes past pathos. Only William Neal, as Darius, and Prudencio Montesino, as Steve, act without pretense. On the other hand, David Pevsner, in the title role, doesn't overdo it because he doesn't do anything. He offers a flat, lifeless performance to an already underwritten role.
Perhaps as the run continues the cast will find the arch tone that Rudnick envisioned. Having seen the excellent New York production of Jeffrey, I know it's possible, and I expect to witness it again when the play makes it to the screen, starring Steven Weber (of Wings), Patrick Stewart, Sigourney Weaver, and Nathan Lane.
Until then, I can praise Ken N. Kurtz and the Coconut Grove Playhouse (in an admirable display of theatrical cooperation) for the ingenious set design and construction; Rudnick for writing a creative sit-com about a difficult subject; and ACME for again choosing challenging material over stale revivals. ACME's Jeffrey is entertaining, but it's not half as good as it should be. As the British are fond of saying, a miss is as good as a mile.