Still, common perception holds that New York is the "Most Morally Bankrupt City in North America," which makes it the perfect setting for Paul Rudnick's play Jeffrey, now at Beck Center. Taking place after the onset of AIDS, this bawdy work offers up a drooling Catholic priest lasciviously groping a young male congregant, a jerk-off club where guys stroke themselves while sporting innovative thong couture, and black-suited gay men cruising each other at a supposedly solemn memorial service. But wait: Before you place that emergency call to outraged moralist-in-chief William Bennett and disrupt his roulette run, also consider the tender love stories that reside at the heart of this often riotously funny, award-winning play. Because by merging the profound experiences of love and loss with the profane, Rudnick jolts us, so that we must confront our own petty prejudices.
Swinging exuberantly from realistic scenes to fantasies and satirical send-ups, the show begins in the bed of the title character, a young man who has swapped DNA with hundreds (or thousands) of similarly inclined men, some of whom literally pop out from under his sheets. But now, the fatal truth of AIDS has hit home, and Jeffrey (played with irrepressible boyish sensuality by Scott Esposito) has declared himself a sex-free zone to avoid the complications of gay boot-knockin'. Intent on getting his mind off joysticks, Jeffrey hits a local health club, where he pumps iron with the help of Steve, a buns-of-steel type who shares a quasi-orgasmic moment with Jeffrey at the bench-press station. Fighting the urge to fall into the sack with this stud, our hero just says no and spins off into a whirlwind of self-help schemes and dreams that are intended to help him maintain his chastity. But HIV-positive Steve (in a touchingly vulnerable performance by Nicholas Koesters) is hot for Jeffrey and is never far away.
Feeling like a sexless stranger in his own city, Jeffrey seeks guidance from his older friend Sterling (played with fey precision by Mark Cipra), who has settled down with the bubble-headed young Cats chorus boy Darius (Doug Rossi in full mimbo mode). Equally attracted and freaked out by monogamy, Jeffrey gets help from various counselors and, disastrously, the clergy. But he seems doomed to writhe in his own personal torment, until the tragic demise of a friend causes Jeffrey to reevaluate his approach to life and love in such threatening times.
Even though Rudnick's script presents a virtual encyclopedia of gay stereotypes, the material soars, thanks to a relentless volley of clever laugh lines, inspired direction by Brian Zoldessy, and some standout performances. Rudnick, who also wrote the gay-themed comedy film In and Out, can bat out gags as quickly as he snares poignant moments. To wit, after Jeffrey is gay-bashed on the street, he sadly admits, "Hey, at least it was physical contact." And in a play that is thoroughly focused on issues of male-on-male relationships, it's interesting that the best comic performance is given by the only woman in the cast. Molly McGinnis is bracingly different in each of her characterizations, which encompass a brutally frank self-help guru (think Marianne Williamson on steroids), a clueless society matron emceeing a country-western benefit at the Waldorf, and the brassy Long Island mother of a pre-op transsexual lesbian son. Also exceptional is Ryan Bergeron, who turns the role of flamingly gay priest into a hyperactive bundle of hysterical one-liners. Relating his duties in the confessional, he describes how he listens to boys confess their love for their soccer coach and complains about how they describe their feelings in words. "Where are the Polaroids? What am I, a mind reader?"
While it's safe to assume that this production will not be a favorite of the Catholic Diocese, it should entertain others who believe that sex should be less of a troubling moral dilemma than, say, the nation's tendency to reward the rich at the expense of the poor. And speaking of the poor: Throughout the play, Mother Teresa (referred to as "Terry") floats through the proceedings to help guide Jeffrey on his path and ultimately show him how to integrate his life with the sacred. Sure, it's just the playwright's view, but it's a powerful perspective for all of us: gay, straight, or otherwise.