A couple of seasons ago Paul Rudnick had a silly play on Broadway called “I Hate Hamlet” that acquired so much notoriety for its onstage actor feuds and shenanigans that the things the play failed to do as a comedy went almost unnoticed.
Well, Rudnick may be forgiven that indiscretion, having this year redeemed himself with “Jeffrey,” a genuine comedy about gay romance in the age of AIDS that took Off-Broadway by surprise and grabbed awards along the way.
“Jeffrey” has now moved west. It opened Tuesday at the Westwood Playhouse with most of its New York cast in place.
A comedy about AIDS ? Yes, but a comedy with subtext that is consistently hilarious and, surprisingly, consistently serious. Heavy-duty stuff, so breezy and palatable that it dazzles with its ability to demonstrate how you can take away the power of AIDS to intimidate when you make people laugh at pain without trivializing the tragedy.
Rudnick is not the first playwright to do that. “Falsettos,” coming to the Doolittle Theatre in April, has the same knack for dismantling fear. So does the late Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room,” a comedy about terminal illness that is a metaphor for AIDS. (It opens at Santa Barbara’s Ensemble Theatre this weekend.) You can even find analogies in it with some of the comedy in “Angels in America.”
All these plays reinforce what we know: that succumbing to fear takes the joy out of what living there is, and as a highly unconventional priest in “Jeffrey” reminds us, “there’s one real blasphemy, and that’s the refusal of joy.”
In fact “Jeffrey” is about a handsome, sexually hyperactive gay actor-waiter named Jeffrey (John Michael Higgins) who is so repulsed by AIDS and illness that he decides the only safe sex is no sex: Total denial, total escape. Temptation, of course, instantly comes his way in the form of an HIV-positive hunk named Steve (Hank Stratton). And we’re off.
Christopher Ashley, who directed the original, has restaged this “Jeffrey” with all the dispatch, verve and brittleness Rudnick’s brazen repartee commands. For his part, Rudnick uses Jeffrey’s torments as a line on which to hang his irreverent views about any number of subjects: pop psychologists (Harriet Harris in one of many roles she does to near-perfection), opera, interior decoration, the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Guardian Angels, gay lifestyles, religion and God.
This is a tall order, which makes “Jeffrey” a large cut above your usual comedy. The play also benefits from a top-notch company. Higgins and Stratton are strapping young men endowed with intelligence and restraint. The point men in the show are Edward Hibbert as Sterling, a middle-aged man who loves playing queen, and Bryan Batt as his much younger companion Darius, a dancer in “Cats” (hence the Lloyd Webber zingers). Hibbert, who won an Obie for this role, has the wittiest lines and a drop-dead delivery, while Batt is the sacrificial lamb. His untimely death turns Jeffrey’s mind around, making for a tenderly memorable reunion between Jeffrey and Steve in the understated final scene.
Production values, duplicated from the New York staging, are simple, highlighted by set designer James Youmans’ fine projections. But what you go to see “Jeffrey” for is not scenery. It’s the startling heft, hilarity and honesty of what the play is willing to confront.
* “Jeffrey,” Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Nov. 21. $29-$37.50; (800) 233-3123, (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.