Jeffrey, Paul Rudnick’s gay romantic comedy, opens with a slide show of the New York skyline accompanied by lushly arranged Gershwin music. The effect recalls Woody Allen’s Manhattan, itself an homage to a distinctly New York brand of humor–stylish, sexy, smartly ironic, and finally sentimental, filled with chic eccentrics whose problems, mostly the result of their own neuroses, are hopeless but not really serious. The latest in a line of writers that, besides Allen, includes the likes of Patrick Dennis (Auntie Mame), Nora Johnson (The World of Henry Orient), and George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch), Rudnick stirs up anxieties only to conquer them with ironic wit and a sentimental belief in happy endings.
The difference is the nature of the worries Rudnick raises. Instead of marital infidelity, unreciprocated love, or indecision about maintaining virginity, the characters in Jeffrey are concerned about AIDS. They’re gay guys in the Greenwich Village fast lane, where the death of young men is a fact of daily life. Fucking’s no longer fun, decides handsome young Jeffrey, whose onetime dedication to scoring (“I’m not promiscuous. That’s such an ugly word. I’m cheap”) has literally gone limp from plague paranoia. So he resolves to give up sex. But every activity he turns to for sublimation undermines his intention to eliminate sexual contact–exercise, work, masturbation, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, even religion (he’s groped by a gay priest while praying at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral). In a world where everything is permitted, the only thing that seems impossible to Jeffrey is just saying no–because, Rudnick affirms, it’s the wrong thing to say. “We’re all AIDS babies,” says Steve, the nice-guy bartender whose courtship of Jeffrey motors the plot. “I don’t want to die without being held.” Echoes of Gershwin: “Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.”
Jeffrey finds Steve attractive, but he’s scared–not only of Steve’s HIV-positive status but of intimacy. Underneath the clever one-liners is the story of a man who uses recreational sex to avoid emotional involvement. With AIDS in the picture, sex demands the responsibility Jeffrey has always evaded; he can no longer enjoy lust until he accepts love. But the responsibilities of love are pretty heavy stuff, and Rudnick downplays them with a finale straight out of Crazy for You: Jeffrey and Steve embracing under a starry sky to the accompaniment of “Embraceable You.”
Improbable? You bet. But the play’s feel-good finish is part of its message: in a world beset by death and disease, imagination and wish fulfillment are crucial to survival. So is laughter, which abounds in the quip-filled script, a cleverly constructed series of stand-up routines, more-or-less naturalistic domestic comedy, and Second City-type skits (including a riotous fantasy in which Jeffrey’s parents counsel him about safe sex). Rudnick’s 1993 off-Broadway hit, receiving its Chicago premiere as part of Bailiwick Repertory’s Pride Performance Series, surrounds its central conflict–Jeffrey’s retreat from life with Steve in hot pursuit–with an often hilarious caricature of gay male existence in 1990s New York. A mostly unemployed actor who earns his living as a waiter at catered events (“If you’re anyone at all you’ve ignored me, but I don’t care. I’ve tried on your fur”), Jeffrey is well situated to guide us through a community where bejeweled socialites preside over AIDS hoedowns, effeminate men in ill-fitting leather gear aspire to super-butchness, and God is seen as the white-bearded old man manipulating human marionettes–straight off the original-cast album of My Fair Lady. If Jeffrey ultimately falls short of exerting the transcendent emotional pull it strives for, its hopefulness in the face of perplexing reality is very appealing; so is Rudnick’s skill as a joke writer.
This well-played non-Equity staging, directed by John Herrera, is less slick than the New York original, but warmer and in many ways funnier. Making his directorial debut, veteran actor Herrera knows that one of the keys to any shows success is casting: his ensemble of seven men and one woman consists of quirky, interesting, unglamorous types whose offbeat characterizations mitigate the bias toward overbuilt beauties that marked the off-Broadway production. The show’s casting coup is Michael A. Shepperd as Sterling, the wealthy, matchmaking interior decorator who nudges the reluctant Jeffrey toward a relationship with Steve. Besides a flair for charming outrageousness that turns this supporting role into a star cameo, Shepperd is a good-looking young black man in a role conceived as a middle-aged white Englishman; his presence undercuts the original production’s depiction of the gay community as a lily-white legion of hot young studs and rich old trolls.
In the title role, George B. Smart III is more boyish and less beefcakey than John Michael Higgins or Greg Louganis, who played the role in New York. Smart’s ingenuous earnestness makes Jeffrey come off less glib and more introspective, directing the audience’s attention to an inner conflict that has only partly to do with fear of disease. David DeVore very effectively suggests Steve’s struggle to win Jeffrey’s love without sacrificing his own dignity; Fred Schleicher is sweet and funny, though too shrill, as Sterling’s chorus-boy lover Darius; and Amy Farrington is very funny in a series of small parts, including a Marianne Williamson-type evangelist who preaches a gospel of self-esteem while reveling in her insecure followere adulation.
FEY WAYS–DIATRIBE AND REMINISCENCE
at the Theatre Building
Occasionally reading Dominic Hamilton Little’s writings in the free weekly Nightlines, I’ve gotten the impression of an affected writer trying to adopt a tone of snooty condescension toward the oddities of contemporary gay and lesbian life. But Hamilton Little comes off much better in person than in print. In his one-man show Fey Ways, drawn from his humor column of the same name (and an earlier one called “Mayle Androgyne”), he presents himself as a nice, well-mannered young man with an engaging English accent that mellifluously carries the cadences of his writing. He has a way with words, even if the substance of his commentary is fairly obvious. “To deny that a trip on the Broadway bus is pure Fellini is frankly naive,” for example, is hardly an original observation, but it sounds funny in Hamilton Little’s rarefied delivery.
Making himself at home on the fag-apartment set of the long-running gay comedy Party (whose producers are presenting Fey Ways in a limited run), sipping from a glass of water (no liquor–doctor’s orders), and puffing on a cigarette (what’s the doctor say about that?), Hamilton Little alternately comments comically on the present and reflects on the past. The autobiographical anecdotes are the evening’s best portions: his reminiscences of his childhood in Brussels and his youth as a British prep school’s token sissy are decorated with telling details–images, sounds, odors. Material dealing with the present is less satisfying due to the author’s posture of ironic distance. Anecdotes about a weekend at Mardi Gras, a trip to New York, a visit from a former lover who’s since died of AIDS, and even his own HIV-positive status feel artificial; it’s as if Hamilton Little lived these experiences just to have something to write about. His frequent displays of effeminate snobbery at some gay men’s obsession with fitness and body building undercut his aspirations toward an Auntie Mame-style embrace of life in all its eccentric energy: if he cares so little for the gym culture, why does he spend so much time mocking it?
Hamilton Little may sense this flaw in his work; at one point he refers to himself as a “collage” of influences from high and popular culture–Brideshead Revisited and Boy George, Renata Tebaldi and Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and Quentin Crisp. Perhaps when he has developed a personality of his own he’ll be more worth paying attention to.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.