Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, now at the Theatre on Broadway, makes a plea for compassion in these days of AIDS. But his ideas about how a lover can best express that compassion are sometimes questionable.

Rife with in-jokes and written primarily for the gay community, Jeffrey is a kind of riotous hero's journey that makes little effort to leap the culture gap between gay and straight society. There are serious problems with the play's structure; its strength lies in its wild range of characters. And the strength in this production derives from an excellent ensemble cast and the vitality of Steve Tangedal's rapid-fire directing.

Jeffrey decides to give up sex. All the romance is gone from his casual encounters because in the age of AIDS, it's just too dangerous out there. So he embarks on a celibate lifestyle, trying to figure out how he can find fulfillment in other interests. He loves acting, but the jobs are few and far between. After a laborious audition for the role of a cop in a TV show, he is asked to read for the part of "the gay neighbor" and wins it--two lines. Next he tries weightlifting, hoping to make endorphins do the work of hormones.

For all his fear and caution, Jeffrey meets and falls for Steve, who is HIV-positive. But tormented by his fear of AIDS, which has claimed several close friends, Jeffrey represses his desire--and ironically spends most of the rest of the play trying to evade his new love interest. Made to feel guilty by a gay community that resents his decision to live without sex, he wrestles with sorrow and his own indecisiveness until he finds his answer in the final scene.

Sam Wood's Jeffrey alternates layers of boyish sweetness and solemn self-knowledge, and his steady and mild-mannered characterization stands in contrast to the sparkling flamboyance of the rest of a fine ensemble cast. Len Kisiuk as Sterling, an interior decorator, never seems like a stereotype even though his character is a classic cliche; he appears in a black-and-red silk suit that draws howls from the audience but quickly brings the character back down to human dimensions.

Rudnick deftly uses humor to offset his grim AIDS theme. The jokes come a mile a minute, and director Tangedal keeps the repartee ripping. Neither Rudnick nor Tangedal tries to soft-pedal gay life for mainstream consumption: The humor is explicitly sexual and often abrasive. Rudnick plays off stereotypes rather than dismissing them, mocking gays who are defensive or who spend too much of their time trying to look respectable. He embraces the outrageous but includes enough complexity in his characterizations to create real, memorable human beings--people who are often narcissistic, bitchy or misogynistic. Rudnick seems to be after something besides political correctness, and as a result, the play comes across as a hybrid--a cross between campy cabaret, romantic comedy and serious politics.

But the plot about Jeffrey's search for peace is only a thread that winds through a series of loosely related scenes. If you don't understand why so many of the characters here are preoccupied with sex, nothing in the play will explain it to you. And some of the peer pressure Rudnick includes is even more incomprehensible: Why is a man who fears death so pressed not only by a prospective lover but by all his other friends to become sexually active again?

For Jeffrey, promiscuity is not where it's at--yet for some reason, Rudnick makes his celibacy seem like a betrayal. It's left to the audience to sort out what at times can be a very mixed message.


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