A Complicated Courtship

Jeffrey offers clever musings on the complexities of love and HIV.

If you want to see how the public response to the AIDS crisis has changed over time, you might compare a couple of plays: Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey (1993), currently showing at Central Stage Theatre, and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1985), one of the first plays about the epidemic. In the earlier work, the key mood is anger over the slowness of the government and media response to the crisis; in the later play, the time for rage has passed, and the key mood is irony and a sadly witty acceptance of the disease as an at least temporary fact of life. Kramer's dramaturgy is direct, mostly devoid of metaphor, too urgent for "literary" effects; while Rudnick's play is whimsical, rhetorically sparkling, insistently comic in the face of despair. In both plays an important character dies of the disease; but in The Normal Heart that death is a stand-in for public calamity, while in Jeffrey the death matters mostly insofar as it affects a protagonist facing a personal dilemma. Finally, Kramer's play suggests a large-scale, political response to AIDS; Rudnick's play assumes that response as a given, and allows itself to focus on one man and his problems.

That one man is Jeffrey: a gay male who, frightened by AIDS and exhausted by the effort of trying to avoid it, decides to swear off sex altogether. No sooner does he do so than he meets Steve, the man of his dreams — who happens to be HIV-positive. For two witty and inventive acts, Jeffrey struggles with his decision, his attraction to Steve, the advice of his friends Sterling and Darius, the promptings of a TV evangelist and a priest.

While he does, we're treated to a theatrically ingenious series of scenes that invite us into Jeffrey's psyche, into his memories and hopes, his fantasies and fears. For instance, the play begins with Jeffrey and six men in bed together. Each man represents a different troubled encounter, and with amazing efficiency, Rudnick is able to suggest the experiences that lead to Jeffrey's decision against sex.

Or in Act Two Jeffrey wonders what life would be like if he and his parents could speak honestly; and the scene that follows is a hilarious fantasy conversation in which nothing is suppressed ("Mom: Sweetheart — are you a top or a bottom? Jeffrey: Mother! Dad: Have you tried any of those workshops? Mom: What about a jerk-off club? Dad: How about phone sex?")

Another of Rudnick's many theatrical strategies is direct address to the audience, sometimes of a terribly serious nature. For example, early in the play Jeffrey tells us that "Things are just — not what they should be. Sex is too sacred to be treated this way. Sex wasn't meant to be safe, or negotiated, or fatal. But you know what really did it? This guy. I'm in bed with him, and he starts crying. And he says, 'I'm sorry, it's just — this used to be so much fun.'"

Sometimes it's not Jeffrey who addresses us, but a character like Debra Morehouse, the nation's hottest postmodern evangelist: "But remember, I'm not your idol, your Elvis. Don't worship me — love me!" And speaking of religion, one of Jeffrey's wittiest encounters is with Father Dan, the gay priest who believes in Broadway musicals and isn't against a quickie before mass: "First, here's how you see God. He's a Columbia recording artist. ... You got your idea of God from where most gay kids get it — the album cover of My Fair Lady. Original cast. It's got this Hirschfeld caricature of George Bernard Shaw up in the clouds, manipulating Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on strings, like marionettes. It was your parents' album, you were little, you thought it was a picture of God."

Now, as you might gather, this is a play that depends very centrally on one actor, the one playing Jeffrey. The good news: Blake Walton is more than up to the job. He has a complicated stage presence. His youthful but lined face suggests innocence and experience simultaneously, as if a man with (admittedly) countless sexual encounters had nonetheless managed to retain his naivete and his ability to be surprised.

Even more convincing is Trever Keller as Steve, the object of Jeffrey's self-canceling affections. Keller's is a macho presence, but one so carefully controlled as to suggest some sort of drama always going on just behind his forehead. Richard Ray Harris as dancer Darius is funny and ingratiating, but Keven Renken as fashion plate Sterling employs a dubious accent that's not quite British and certainly not American. All the other actors — Robert Williams, Mark Pecenko, Lawrence Buzzeo and Cheryl Atkinson — are fine in multiple roles.

The physical stage is another matter. There's next to no set for Jeffrey — just a bare stage backed with the silhouette of a cityscape, onto which various props are brought as needed. This unattractive non-space detracts from the action, lends a rudimentary look to the goings-on, and keeps us from transporting ourselves into the world of the play. I realize that set design can be prohibitively costly, but a respectable set is an essential part of any production, and can help convey the meaning of a play. The costumes (uncredited in my program) are just right, though, and Bill Booth's sound design is one of the most attractive features of the production.

As for Jeffrey, it's a thoroughly enjoyable play, a far cry from the siren of emergency in The Normal Heart but not an illogical result of the later days of the AIDS crisis. One day soon, perhaps both plays will become obsolete, as irrelevant as a report on the plague in Elizabethan London.

Until that time, Rudnick's play — no less than Kramer's, or Tony Kushner's — will continue to provide an essential perspective on an all-too-real disaster.

Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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