There’s a lot of anguish behind the robust humor of Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, the anguish of a writer fully cognizant of the AIDS epidemic and determined not to minimize it even as he spreads wisecracks far and wide. True, Rudnick never misses a chance to mock 1990s New York gay culture, from the wild variety of the annual Pride parade to the adoration of Tommy Tune. But his real subject is the world that AIDS made, a world gone “radioactive,” where sex can be fatal and love stories regularly unfold not just at home but at the hospital. Can one really find laughter in such circumstances? Yes, Rudnick can and does, repeatedly — even while asking all the hard questions and acknowledging a society in crisis. That’s why Jeffrey is special and still deserving of production 20 years after it was written. This is a daring and original comedy, and still very much worth seeing.
Jeffrey is a young gay man who, at play’s start, is so distraught over the dangers of sex, he makes a resolution to remain celibate. He thinks he’ll put all that pent-up energy into his career — as an out-of-work actor who waits tables for a caterer. But soon after he swears off sex, he goes to a gym and meets Steve, and the attraction is instant and mutual. Jeffrey accepts Steve’s invitation out, and is happy to forget his recent promises to himself — until Steve tells him that he is HIV-positive. Jeffrey pretends not to mind, but he minds big time, and runs for the hills. He redoubles his efforts to live sexless, joining a masturbation club, and trying to find succor from his friends Sterling and Darius — the latter of whom is struggling with AIDS. He even goes so far as to call his parents in Wisconsin on the off chance that they can help him, and, when that doesn’t work, tries prayer and confession. But the priest that he encounters only wants an assignation, and meanwhile Steve keeps turning up and trying to restart their aborted relationship. Caught between his fear of AIDS and his love for Steve, Jeffrey is tormented. How can he decide when both alternatives are unacceptable?
The Hat Trick Theatre production at Tampa’s Straz Center has many strengths, one of the most notable of which is Daniel Rosenstrauch’s performance in the title role. Rosenstrauch plays Jeffrey as a somewhat cerebral sex addict for whom celibacy is far from an easy choice, and who is credibly agonized over the abstinence he feels obliged to adopt. This Jeffrey is no monk: he’s had scores of partners in the past, and finds sex so delightful, he can hardly think of how else to spend an ordinary evening. As Steve, Zackhary Myers is not quite so convincing; though he tells us he’s a bartender, his main occupation seems to be chasing Jeffrey (and laying guilt trips on him), and it’s hard to imagine what sort of inner life he might possess. Eric Swearingen as Jeffrey’s friend Sterling is more interesting, ultra-civilized and a little superior, while Jon Gennari, as Sterling’s AIDS-afflicted partner, seems out-of-focus and indeterminate.
There are four other actors playing multiple parts, but the prize for most splendid comic has to go to David Barrow, who portrays the priest that Jeffrey turns to, only to find the man a sexual predator. There’s nothing sinister in this performance: Barrow turns up the comedy from the moment he grabs Jeffrey’s ass to the point when he insists that Jeffrey’s image of God comes from a My Fair Lady record cover and is in need of revision. Excellent work is also turned by Gi Sung in multiple female roles and by Jamie Jones in various parts, including a pre-operative transsexual lesbian hanging out with his/her mother. (Full disclosure: Jones has been a writing student of mine at USF.) Ricky Jones in several roles doesn’t make much of an impression.
If the plot that I’ve described here seems simple and linear, I have to correct that notion: in fact, Jeffrey’s travails are interrupted often by fantasy sequences, and any director of the play has to make some seamless transitions. This is just what the talented Keith Odums does, and he’s assisted by Gi Sung’s many costumes, which make it easy for the audience to distinguish one briefly appearing character from another. The uncredited set is made up of platforms on different levels, with a New York cityscape in the background along with a projection screen on which impossibly buff men appear in succession. As for Anthony Vito’s lighting, it could hardly be improved.
Anyway, kudos to Hat Trick; and a belated welcome back to Tampa. Your work is better than ever. And the Straz fits you just fine.