Boy meets boy...

Playwright Paul Rudnick discusses the long journey to Jeffrey

Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, directed by award-winning New York stage director Christopher Ashley in his feature film debut, is something of a mess. Ashley has no sense of how to build momentum within the camera's frame, so he relies on stock TV effects--slow motion, crane shots, first-person addresses by the lead actor to the audience--that give many of the sequences a flabby, undisciplined feel.

Ashley inadvertently exposes the weakness of playwright Rudnick's central narrative--not a narrative at all, but a series of loosely connected vignettes that skewers New Age cultism, the contemporary dating scene, AIDS charities, and the burden of commitment in a world where one night together can get you killed.

Still, for all its obvious shortcomings, the screen version of Jeffrey enchants more often than it disappoints, if only because this is the first time American movie audiences have seen a cast of heterosexual male actors throw themselves into fairly explicit gay material with such conviction and utter joy. The language is at times raunchy, the same-sex kisses smoldering, but ticketbuyers will discover a grab-bag of hilarious, poignant, and sexy moments.

Gay audiences will get a chance to enjoy old-fashioned, starry-eyed movie escapism without being reminded, once again, that they are behind the political eight-ball in these ultra-conservative times. The world of Jeffrey, like any gay urban ghetto, is a hermetically sealed universe that makes few concessions to the expectations of the majority. And it features two drop-dead handsome leads with terrific comic timing and a chemistry that overcomes Ashley's sometimes clumsy execution.

Ashley was the original collaborator with the author on the New York and Los Angeles productions of Rudnick's play, which has broken theater box-office records nationally and been produced everywhere, from a local Dallas staging by the Moonstruck Theatre Company to a performance last year in Tel Aviv.

"I never imagined this play would become a movie," says Rudnick, who's also written two novels, several other plays, about $300 million worth of film scripts (Sister Act, the Addams Family movies), and doubles as Premiere magazine film critic Libby Gelman-Waxner. "For that matter, I never imagined it would become such a successful play. Jeffrey started off three years ago at a tiny off-Broadway theater, scheduled to run for just three weeks, and it's been playing ever since. And I had to shop it around even in New York theater circles--a comedy about AIDS was unheard of then. I got calls from artistic directors saying, 'We love the script, but we just can't.'"

Even after the play's huge success, the screen treatment was turned down by every major Hollywood studio, until an independent production company, Workin' Man Productions, seized the opportunity.

And that was just the beginning of their troubles. Casting the film was almost as big a headache. "There was a lot of apprehension on most people's part," Rudnick confirms. "Some of that changed when Sigourney Weaver signed on. That gave the picture credibility. Then people said, 'Oh, this is a serious project that has a chance.'"

Those who finally signed on to the movie, Rudnick said, were "wonderful and totally cooperative. Everyone was so enthusiastic, which is great when you're working on such a small budget. Most of these actors worked for scale, which meant, in effect, they were donating their time. There were no egos involved, because there was nothing to fight over. Everyone got the same Dixie cup."

Although the story, which deals with a New York actor-waiter's self-imposed celibacy from his fear of the HIV virus, unfolds in a proudly urban homosexual milieu, the conflicts which drive it are universal. Jeffrey (Steven Weber from the TV show "Wings") is a young, attractive, healthy gay man who loves sex, but after years of watching friends drop like flies around him, he's determined to live a chaste life.

His best buddies, lovers Sterling (Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard from TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation") and Darius (Bryan Batt), are aghast at Jeffrey's voluntary withdrawal from romance. When Jeffrey meets sly-eyed dreamboat Steve (Michael T. Weiss, best known from the soap "Days of Our Lives") at the local gym, he finds himself tossed atop the rapids of his worst fears--this patient, witty, life-loving bartender is HIV-positive.

What follows is a series of imaginary interludes in which Jeffrey tries to rationalize the decision to reject Steve. He competes against Sterling in a mock game show hosted by Robert Klein called "It's Just Sex," and finds himself eliminated because he cannot justify his own redirection of lust. He attends several Sexual-Compulsive Anonymous meetings, only to find greater stimulation in the proceedings. He is temporarily brought asunder by a white-suited metaphysical guru (Sigourney Weaver in a short, scenery-chewing performance) obviously based on Marianne Williamson. She blames illness on a weakness of the individual, and exhorts her followers to look into themselves and just ignore all that negativity about disease, death, and disappointment.

Surfing between dramatic homosexual material and the kind of contemporary hurlyburly about relationships and choices most thinking adults face in the '90s, Jeffrey has trouble finding exactly what it wants to say. Still, every gay man under 50 who came out post-Stonewall in a big city is likely to find at least a small part of himself here.

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