I've been a big fan of Paul Rudnick's writing ever since I read his first novel, Social Disease, in the early Eighties. That book, and most of Rudnick's subsequent work (the play I Hate Hamlet; several screenplays, including the two Addams Family movies; and his hilarious monthly movie column in Premiere magazine) have caused me to laugh out loud. I rarely laugh while reading, and never at films based on Sixties sitcoms. So Rudnick, in my book, is something of a comic genius.
Jeffrey's off-Broadway debut in 1993 confirmed my opinion by scoring a pile of theatre awards, including an Obie for Rudnick's writing. This blackout comedy about a promiscuous gay man who chooses celibacy over safe sex is the funniest of Rudnick's plays and my personal favorite. So I was sorry to see a less-than-stellar performance of it at 7th Street Theater the other night.
Especially one given by In Mixed Company, a really fine theatre troupe with a string of exceptional productions to its credit. Of the 117 plays and musicals I saw last season, this company's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress was the one I enjoyed the most. The group followed that comedy with an exceptional production of Keely & Du, a controversial play about abortion and women's rights.
The first show of its new season breaks the company's stride. Jeffrey is a lightning-quick combination of farce and romantic comedy, and director D. Scott Withers has done a fine job with the show's delirious pacing. But Withers seems to have focused his energies on that enormous task, leaving most of his actors to flounder. The ensemble cast--eight actors playing some 40 roles--must portray high comedy and great grief at quick turns. Mostly, they fail.
Dwayne Hartford is suitably naive and charming in the title role. And Ginny Harman, who plays all of the women's roles, apparently doesn't need much direction. Her big comic timing shines through some remarkably ugly dresses and wigs. (Both the costuming and sets for this show are the worst I've seen outside a high school cafetorium.) But Scott Balthazor's wooden performance as the love interest didn't convince me that Jeffrey would spend six months mooning over him. The remaining players overact in a variety of roles. When I wasn't wishing they'd hurry up with their lines and get off the stage, I was praying they'd at least keep their clothes on. In fact, I think it's asking a lot of an audience to buy into a play about the lives of body-conscious, sex-crazed gay men that doesn't feature a single attractive physique. Do the math: In a play with 22 gay male characters who live in Manhattan, what are the chances that every one of them will be this out of shape?
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There's even less passion here than there are pectorals. In a comedy about the effects of desire, that's an unfortunate omission. In this production, Jeffrey comes off as a sex farce, when, in fact, it's a romantic satire, an answer to all those serious AIDS plays of the Eighties. Where As Is is sentimental and The Normal Heart bitter, Jeffrey is funny in the face of tragedy, not at the expense of it. Laughing at death is a tough task: difficult to write and, judging from the ensemble at In Mixed Company, harder still to enact.
--Robrt L. Pela
Jeffrey continues through Saturday, November 9, at 7th Street Theater, 3302 North Seventh Street.