Sunday, November 23, 2003

Jeffrey (Beck Center)

'JEFFREY' agonizes at Beck

The theatre has been an important vehicle in spreading the word about needed social changes. The women’s movement and African Americans both have used the stage to show the necessity for alterating attitudes towards their groups.

The emerging gay movement has also taken on the theatrical vehicle to shout for equal rights. When gay message plays are well-focused and honed they serve the movement well. Such shows as ‘ANGELS IN AMERICA,’ ‘BOYS IN THE BAND,’ ‘LA CAGES AUX FOLLES,’ ‘TAKE ME OUT’ and ‘THE GENE POOL’ have investigated religious intolerance, homophobia, gays in sports, AIDS, homosexual parenting, self guilt, and gay marriage.

Unfortunately, such plays as ‘THE PARTY,’ ‘MAKING PORN,’ and ‘PUPPY DOG TALE’ center on only looking at the sexual aspects of gay life, feeding into the stereotype of gays as being solely carnal beings. Though it attempts to be a message play, ‘JEFFREY,’ now on stage at Beck Center’s Studio Theatre, fringes on being one of the latter writings.

Written by Paul Rudnick, author of the hysterically funny ‘I HATE HAMLET,’ the plot centers on Jeffrey, a young gay male who, in the 90s age of AIDS vows eternal celibacy in the now dangerous world of sex and relationships.

The vehicle is billed as a “hysterical comedy.” Though there are laughs, this is more than a comedy, as the author attempts to make this a message play. In the process, he creates audience confusion. He takes a serious subject and pushes it to such extremes that the gimmickry often overpowers the message. In one scene, while agonizing over the death of his partner, a character proposes, “We want no more prejudice, no more disease.” Rudnick then changes course when he extends the speech with the phrase, “and no more chintz.” He takes away the power of the message by adding the “fey” stereotype. In another scene he states, “life is radio active” and goes on seriously to show the audience the effects of AIDS. No comedy here.

The play covers every aspect of gay-oriented subjects...physical obsession; evangelism; illness; gay bashing; gay stereotypes of the love of opera, theatre, decorating, clothing; 12-step programs; parental attitudes; and sexual acting out. Also thrown in is Mother Teresa, who wanders in and out of scenes.

This is not to say the play is bad. It will appeal to a “certain” audience. It did win the Obie Award and the Outer Critics’ Circle Award. This notwithstanding, the play is superficial and stresses the sexual aspect so that even the “happy ending” allows the lead character to give into his sexual desires. It’s as if sex conquers all. Is that really what Rudnick wants us to believe?

Director Brian Zoldessy works some of the laugh angles well. The emotional content is left somewhat unattended.

As he did at Actors’ Summit when he portrayed Alan in ‘PICNIC,’ Scott Esposito proves he is one of the best of the area’s young new crop of actors. He textures the role of Jeffrey with humor and drama. His is a very fine performance.

Mark Cipro adds the right levels of exaggerated humor and pathos as Sterling, the aging interior decorator who loses his young lover to AIDS. Molly McGinnis is fine as she covers all the women’s roles including portraying an evangelist, a sexoholic and Mother Teresa. Some of the other cast members do not fare as well as they are placed in performing stereotypes which become unbelievable.

The set adds to the plays consistent inconsistence. Don McBride’s set is a visual delight. However, it, as the play and production, creates confusion. The comic book intense colors and drawings of the New York skyline give a feeling of glee that overshadows the serious message of the play.

Capsule judgement: ‘JEFFREY,’ due to its subject matter, language, production qualities and writing style is not for everyone. Audience members seemed divided on their appreciation. About one-quarter of the house left at intermission, others applauded with delight, if for no other reason, than having seen handsome Scott Esposito in nothing but his tighty-whities.