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.

Over the last couple weeks, actors Weber and Weiss--usually the objects of female ardor--have been quoted frequently in the national press about their onscreen gay liaison. Most reporters in the mainstream media have focused on the two steamy kisses they exchange in the film. Weiss says it was no big deal, and Weber concurred, "except for the beard coming back at you. That was strange for me."

Rudnick, whose credit as co-producer ensured he was on the set almost every day and "could annoy anybody I wanted to and not get fired," says Weber and Weiss didn't hesitate when it came to El Smoocho Grande.

"One thing we found about working with actors on stage, gay or straight, was that since Jeffrey had to spend the entire play saying 'no,' the moment where he could finally let go was a big relief. It was the same with Steven and Michael.

"By the time we worked up to the big climactic kiss, they'd played the whole love story together. They didn't need rehearsals. It was the final scene we shot, and the set was cleared so both actors could feel safe. They knew it had to be a Casablanca-level kiss, something to make everybody swoon."

Jeffrey works better as a delicious series of showy performances than a cohesive story, and nobody makes a wilder--and more potentially controversial--splash than stage actor Nathan Lane, who was widely consoled earlier this year in the national media after being snubbed by the Tony Awards for his New York stage work in Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! In the movie, Lane plays a Catholic priest who cruises the altars for quickies. Cornered by an angry Weber who's just been pinched while he was kneeling to pray, he pours out his cosmic view of life, which is based--not coincidentally--on a love of famous Broadway musicals.

When Weber expresses shock that a man of the cloth would be so unabashedly homo in his pursuits, Lane is nonplussed. "Oh, please," he says. "I'm a priest. In most people's minds, that falls somewhere between hairdresser and florist."

"I guess I have a bias towards stage-trained actors," Rudnick admits in reference to Lane's hilarious work. "They seem to handle language so much better. And I'd worked with Nathan before in Addams Family Values, as well as Christine Baranski" (who plays the assertively Jewish organizer of an HIV fundraiser, a Hoedown For AIDS).

There is a landmark quality in Jeffrey, a sense of revolution that was decidedly missing in the overly cautious, $200 million hit Philadelphia. Forget the posturing-as-victim that Tom Hanks did as an AIDS patient to win his first Oscar. Assuming that there is still a stigma attached to playing a sexual gay man, Steven Weber had much more to lose when he agreed to play the amorous, life-loving Jeffrey, as did Michael T. Weiss playing the affable Steve, who must learn to orchestrate his life with a time-bomb always ticking in his head. Both actors, having earned their current success in TV roles, have expressed a desire to become movie stars. If so, they've chosen a risky start.

Perhaps even more bold is Patrick Stewart, who sashays throughout the film (and snatches almost every scene) as Jeffrey's interior-designer confidante who must ultimately come to terms with the HIV status of his lover Bryan Batt, a costumed Cats chorus boy "now and forever."

When the play was first staged, Rudnick received flak from gay critics for portraying homo men with stereotypical personalities in stereotypical professions--flamers who were actors, waiters, interior decorators, chorus boys.

"Thirty years ago, if these characters (Sterling and Darius) were played as the butt of jokes, then I could understand the outcry," he says. "But as I've written them, they're the strongest, sanest people in the story. I'm offended by the idea that certain personalities should be banished because they're too flamboyant. It seems to me that liberation should be about options, not just creating another set of rules."

Rudnick, himself a gay man who's enjoyed enormous success within the Hollywood machinery, has some very strong opinions about where media images end and reality begins.

"As a community, we have to be careful about feelings of entitlement, because we can't vote on whether Tom Cruise kisses Brad Pitt (in Interview With the Vampire). Certain gay activists have to remember that Hollywood isn't a branch of the federal government--we can't just petition and expect results.

"Gay and lesbian filmmakers have to make their own stories, and prove they're profitable at the box office. Slowly, that's beginning to happen. It's easy to find homophobia everywhere--and it does exist everywhere --but everything depends on the individual talent. Movies are difficult to make period--what matters is the people you work with, and the faith you have in the material."

Rudnick rhapsodizes about a future he admits won't happen anytime soon. "I can't wait until homosexuality is greeted with a kind of ordinariness, when gay and straight characters are woven together in the same film and nobody notices. That will be the real victory."

Until then, he has been pleasantly surprised at the ubiquity of gay identity in America. "In shopping this movie around to gay and lesbian film festivals across the country, I was shocked to discover how many there were, and in such small towns. I predict homosexuality will replace the prom in American culture."

Jeffrey. Orion Pictures. Steven Weber, Michael T. Weiss, Patrick Stewart. Screenplay by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Opens August 18 at the UA Cine.

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