Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey is a snapshot of a time and place in gay history. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that can evolve into to full-blown AIDS can, of course, be transmitted in multiple ways, affecting people of all ages, both genders and any sexual orientation. But when Jeffrey debuted Off-Broadway in 1992, AIDS was a terrifying, voracious killer that transformed plenty of no-strings sex lives into cautionary tales. For the friends, lovers, families and colleagues of those taken too soon by AIDS, memorial services became a dreaded and too-frequent kind of gathering.
Rudnick explores that time in Jeffrey, yet his style is anything but mournful. He’s a playwright who blends keen social observation, pop culture topicality and humor, so his take on a story that another writer might render as tragic becomes smart, romantic and funny. Though times, treatment and outcomes have changed since Jeffrey debuted, Rudnick’s edgy play still has value, impact and plenty of laughs.
Jeffrey, which has resurfaced in a buoyant, touching production by the Miami Beach Stage Door Theatre at the Byron Carlyle, swirls around the life of its titular hero. Jeffrey (Clay Cartland) is a formerly promiscuous guy whose fear of AIDS has led him to swear off sex, just in time to meet the man of his dreams.
Steve (Daniel Rosenstrauch) is a hot Manhattan bartender who works many of the events where Jeffrey, an actor, toils as a “cater waiter” to pay the bills. After the two meet at a gym, the instantly smitten Jeffrey is about to reconsider his celibacy vow when Steve, in the interest of total honesty, reveals he’s HIV-positive. So Jeffrey spends most of the rest of the play avoiding Steve, intimacy and happiness.
Jeffrey’s pal Sterling (Dan Kelley, who also staged the play) is a tart-tongued interior designer happily living with the younger Darius (Frank Vomero), a handsome chorus boy whose current gig is Cats. They keep trying to get Jeffrey to see the obvious -- he and Steve were meant for each other -- to no avail. Shane R. Tanner, Randy Charleville, Larry Buzzeo and Niki Fridh impressively play multiple men and women who move in and out of Jeffrey’s world, offering everything from come-ons to comfort.
Cindy Pearce’s effective, amusing costumes and Ardean Landhuis’ lighting are better than the show’s bare-bones set, but Jeffrey succeeds for Stage Door on the strength of .Rudnick’s writing and the cast’s performances -- particularly Cartland’s.
Played by a less skilled actor, Jeffrey could quickly grow tiresome. Cartland gives him dimension and depth, helping the audience see the world through Jeffrey’s eyes. The actor rides Rudnick’s comic wave, but the richness he brings to the part is most powerfully on display at the end of the first act. Jeffrey has been attacked by two men in a park, and he hallucinates that Mother Teresa (Fridh) is cradling and comforting him. Feeling damaged, lost and alone, he sings a heart-wrenching a cappella version of George and Ira Gershwins’ Nice Work If You Can Get It. That moment perfectly encapsulates all the pain that the play’s well-earned laughter disguises.