Time has played funny tricks on Paul Rudnick’s groundbreaking early-nineties hit Jeffrey (★★), the self-proclaimed comedy about AIDS. A couple of eventful decades, and profound progress in HIV/AIDS treatment, have dimmed the collective cultural memory of the searing sense of loss and terror that informed Rudnick’s defiantly upbeat story of a gay Manhattanite who swears off sex and romance.
So, for Rainbow Theatre Project’s new production, it’s up to director Robert Mintz and his cast to tap into the aura of fear and gloom that should make the play’s jaunty comedy feel more than just cute but cathartic. Their efforts do produce an engaging romance, but they don’t capture the gravity of the moment that Jeffery is portraying.
In the words of underemployed actor and cater-waiter Jeffrey (Rinaldo Martinez), it’s a time when “sex used to be fun.” Bearing witness to an epidemic has left him and his community racked with pain and guilt, while navigating the minefields of safe sex has left him paranoid and exhausted. Ready to cut his losses, Jeffrey declares he’s done with sex and dating, but his resolve to stay celibate is tested early once he meets a handsome guy at the gym, Steve (Reginald Richard). Jeffrey’s really tested when he learns that Steve is HIV-positive.
The revelation stokes what is perhaps Jeffrey’s greatest fear: that he might fall in love with someone he’s destined to lose to AIDS. But his supposedly crippling fear feels faint in this production. Jeffrey might be afraid of death, or he might just be afraid of dating. It’s a crucial distinction to register, or miss, in a play about overcoming the AIDS scare.
Mintz and his ensemble appear more concerned with registering the banter and bits of broad comedy, which, unfortunately, are hampered by slack timing and set designer PD Carbonell’s cumbersome scenery on wheels.
Still, Emily Levey and Craig Houk find moments to shine in multiple supporting roles, while Matthew Pauli contributes a poignant performance as Jeffrey’s friend, Sterling. And, in the lead, Martinez works with an admirably light touch, as he and Richard generate appealing chemistry. Jeffrey and Steve’s halting courtship, whether complicated by anxiety about life and death, or just run-of-the-mill commitment-phobia, is a tender dance that’s kept pace with the times.
Jeffrey runs through February 10 at the D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. Tickets are $35. Call 202-462-7833 or visit rainbowtheatreproject.org.
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