"Call me old-fashioned," says a character in "End of the World Party," "but I still believe in sex on the first date."
That joke, one nugget in a gold mine of one-liners, hints at the wistful undertone in Chuck Ranberg's flat-out funny new comedy at Celebration Theatre. For the main characters--six gay men who share a summer party house on Fire Island--carefree sex seems as nostalgic as a Donna Summer tune. They'd like to commit--but how? And with whom?
Part of their tentativeness stems from AIDS, which looms over this otherwise sunny play like a threatening storm cloud. But these bon vivants are also confronting a different but no less deadly disease: aging. The double-whammy of time and epidemic has crimped their hell-raising. Hence the title.
Ranberg is a veteran TV writer (he and partner Anne Flett-Giordano shared an Emmy this year for "Frasier"), and here his sitcom roots show, for better and worse. Usually better.
True to sitcom formula, the ensemble is composed of easily recognizable types. Jim J. Bullock plays Hunter, the late-30ish den mother who deflects everything with humor. Roger (Michael Latimer) is a vain actor obsessed with growing older. Will (Richard Hochberg) is a wiry neurotic obsessed with everything.
Travis (Doug Tompos) is a Southern gentleman who lost his lover to AIDS. Nick (Kevin Spirtas) is a cynical stud. And the next generation is represented by Phil (Ric Coy), an idealistic 25-year-old.
As this half-dozen dish gossip, scope hunks and rehash the good old days, the dialogue strikes with such quick, Oscar Wilde-like bolts that any character prefabrication is easily overlooked.
More problematic is Ranberg's over-reliance on soliloquies to add emotional shading to each character. While sometimes the device seems natural (e.g., Hunter's low-key monologues), elsewhere it interrupts the show's rhythm and feels trite (e.g., Nick's revelation that he was abused as a child). Dramatizing at least some of this material may have yielded an even stronger play.
Director Robert Schrock's splendid production helps minimize the occasional defects. Bullock is that rare comic magician who by inflection or gesture can make even a mundane line seem hilarious. Many of the best moments are his, but to be fair it would be difficult to find a more appealing ensemble anywhere.
What elevates Ranberg's play above the level of mere entertaining romp is its keen awareness of the dilemma gay men face in the age of AIDS. Lifelong commitment--that eternal hedge against loneliness and mortality--offers some possibilities but excludes others.
You can't be young forever, but sometimes just surviving is worth celebrating. Everybody dies, this play says with humor and zest, but as long as you're alive, it's not the end of the world.
* "End of the World Party," Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 23. $20. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.