by John Stoltenberg
If there’s such a thing as gay wit, Paul Rudnick’s got a load of it. Imagine Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward if they could be out about it. Yeah, Rudnick ranks with them and then some. As proof, check out the thoroughly entertaining evening’s worth of gay wit that abounds in Rudnick’s 1993 Off-Broadway hit Jeffrey, just revived by Rainbow Theatre Project at DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan.
If you’re unfamiliar with Rudnick’s delicious wit, you can taste it in real time in his wickedly funny Twitter feed. Typically he bounces off the news of the day and makes something or other a bit less dispiriting. A recent example:
Trump and Pence visited the MLK memorial for under two minutes and never mentioned MLK. Trump later explained, “I was tricked into going because I was told it was a statue of me and that there’d be hamberders”
@PaulRudnickNY‘s tweets are a cyber reminder that laughter is the best antidepressant.
Rudnick wrote Jeffrey in the thick of the AIDs epidemic when the urban gay community was being decimated, anxiety was off the charts, and depression was the new normal. Exactly a quarter-century before, in 1968, Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band deployed gay wit against the presumed unhappiness of what was then shamed as the urban homosexual’s lifestyle. “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” jokes the character Michael. In the era of AIDs, that lifestyle had literally become lethal. Introducing Jeffrey on opening night, Rainbow Artistic Producer H. Lee Gable remembered the unremitting loss and grief of that terrible time and choked up.
I saw the original New York production of Jeffrey at the Minetta Lane Theatre, and I remember being blown away that this out playwright’s wit could so pinpoint and puncture my own anxiety about the contagion. At the top of the play is a hilarious sex scene abruptly interrupted when the main character Jeffrey says to his fuck buddy, “It broke.” A frail latex condom had failed and implicitly a death sentence loomed. Moments later Jeffrey, for eminently reasonable fear of the virus, foreswears sex.
That on-point premise is quickly and comically complicated when Jeffrey meets and has the hots for Steven, a hunky gym rat who also has the hots for Jeffrey but who discloses he is seropositive. The question of whether Jeffrey and Steven will get together and get it on plays out over two acts in a series of comedy sketches in iconic situations—including a gym, a safe-sex jack-off club, a support group for sexual compulsives, a self-blame lecture by a self-help guru, a TMI phone call with mom and dad, and an awkward run-in with a gropey priest. Romantic comedy is pretty much always a will-they-or-won’t-they suspense narrative. And comedy in general is pretty much always bouncing off some anxiety or other. But AIDs? Yeah, Rudnick went there.
So as I approached Rainbow’s revival there was a question on my mind: Now that there’s pre-exposure prophylaxis and HIV infection is medically manageable to the point of being untransmittable, does Jeffrey still work as a lift-your-spirits comedy?
Short answer: It decidedly does.
The thing about gay wit is that it’s refreshingly timeless. Rudnick’s one-liners still snap and startle. His sendups of gay and self-help culture are still spot on. His supporting characters are still adorably corny. His two leads still seem made for each other but for an impossible obstacle. His empathic insights into serodiscordant relationships are still of the moment. And the underlying heart and soul of Jeffrey—the story arc of a love that overcomes that which separates—is an enduring testament to the human will to survive by our wits.
Now as then, see Jeffrey for its infectious joy.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.