Summer Camp

I'm still trying to shake the memory of a particularly unattractive production of Jeffrey from several seasons ago, and Alternative Theatre Company's new take on Paul Rudnick's charming comedy has gone a long way toward helping me to forget.

Rudnick's writing is so wonderful, even a roomful of apes could make it sing; it's nearly impossible to mess up good camp, and lines like "Mother Teresa? Oh, she's had work done!" are funny no matter what you know. And this Jeffrey succeeds in large part because its players, most of them amateurs, do know camp, and they wear that knowledge like flashy, hand-sewn bugle beads.

Rudnick's comedy is what used to be called an "AIDS play," in this case because it's about a man, Jeffrey, who loves sex but hates the '90s neuroses that come with getting laid. He's fed up with safe sex and with dates who won't touch him until they've seen a medical report, and so Jeffrey goes off sex, cold turkey. Minutes later he meets Steve, an HIV-positive hottie who pursues him relentlessly. Jeffrey seeks advice from friends Sterling and Darius, a gay couple who are dealing with Darius' HIV. The story is fleshed out with zany skits (a game show called "It's Just Sex!"; an imagined telephone conversation in which Jeffrey's mother attempts to have phone sex with him) and the occasional appearance by Mother Teresa.

Matthew Harris is a buoyant, boyish Jeffrey, and Chris Yoosefi plays Steve in an unaffected, unactorly manner that took me a while to warm up to. It's this sort of casting that is director Joe Marshall's real coup. He recognizes that, to most of the world, gay men are a peculiar bunch, and he's cast his show accordingly. I was mesmerized by Ray Rivera's touching, funny performance as Sterling. Rivera, an actor with cerebral palsy, plays this middle-aged queen as a vain, elegant man whose handicap is just another aspect of his stylishness, another variation on life that he's embraced.

Rivera is rivaled only by funny Frank Kubat, who plays, among others, a pre-operative transsexual lesbian and a lecherous, musical-theater-obsessed priest who thinks Andrew Lloyd Webber is Satan and that God is found in the grooves of the My Fair Lady cast album.

There are some perfectly terrible moments, most of them involving Tina McDonald, who overacts shamelessly in a half-dozen different roles. And I've never seen a production of Jeffrey in which the country hoe-down number isn't dreadful, and here it's especially hard to watch. But Marshall keeps the production chugging along at a pace that puts disappointing moments quickly behind us.

Marshall sets smart scenes with a minimum of props and stage dressing, like the enormously appealing opening sequence: Two men hold up a bed sheet in front of them, onto which various color slides of the Manhattan skyline are projected. They're in bed, debating the virtues of safe sex. One of the guys leaves, and another pops up to replace him. This continues until the entire cast has, in the space of several minutes, appeared in bed with our hero.

The intimate setting of The Space, a black box on North Central, is an asset, because Rudnick's script is full of fourth-wall-busting chats with the audience and wacky asides that play best in a smallish space. Opening night was sold out, and the enthusiastic, mostly gay crowd worked overtime to dispel rumors about homosexuals and gracious manners. (Note to novice theatergoers: It's impolite to speak to the actors while they're onstage.)

Despite an imperfect production, Alternative Theatre does Jeffrey proud. Marshall and company create a comic debate about the importance of love that wedges Rudnick's message ("Hate AIDS, not life") into a lot of witty observations on death and our recently troubled times.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela