Earlier this week I was fortunate to being able to attend a preview show for Walterdale Theatre Associates’ new production of Jeffrey, the 1992 comedy by Paul Rudnick about a young single gay man in New York City, frustrated by the precautions and disclosures and negotiations around sex in the era of AIDS. It was directed by Kyle Thulien and Sarah Van Tassel. Jeffrey (Sean Richard MacKinnon) decides that he’s just going to stop having sex. This works out about as well as you might expect, starting with him going to the gym for distraction and encountering handsome Steve (Logan Boon). Thus follows a whirlwind of glimpses of Jeffrey’s life as a catering waiter and aspiring actor, with his close friends Sterling (Gerald Mason), an interior designer and his younger boyfriend Darius (Simon Müller), a chorus performer in the musical Cats! Jeffrey works at fundraisers and funerals, takes his laundry to the cleaner on Pride Parade day, sits with Sterling in the hospital where Darius is dying, and explores a church, a kind of sex club, and a game-show panel in some of the less narrative-reality-based scenes. The rest of the ensemble (Trevor Talbott, Mark Kelly, Catherine Wenschlag, and Morgan D. D. Refschauge) play various characters in all these settings. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Jeffrey imagines his conservative kind Wisconsinite parents (Wenschlag and Talbott) giving him homey but disturbingly explicit advice about sex, and Wenschlag as an overbearingly-enthusiastic mother on Pride day, reminiscent of Sharon Gless’s character Debbie on Queer As Folk (the Toronto/Pittsburgh version).
We learn that Steve is HIV-positive and we watch Sterling and Jeffrey cope with Darius’s illness and death, and Jeffrey’s reaction goes from seeming funny and overly squeamish to grippingly understandable. Jeffrey’s determination to avoid the complications of sex looks very much like anyone’s determination to avoid the risk of heartbreak by not falling in love – and by the end we are all cheering for him and Steve to get together.
This story is set several years after the events portrayed in The Normal Heart and in Angels in America Part I. It was set in the same city and about the same year as the most recent Walterdale show, Six Degrees of Separation, which gives perspective to the society matron’s question in that show “Are you infected? do you have AIDS?” as quite a reasonable worry. The dark humour of this script around finding new cultural norms for sexual behaviour must have been very powerful when it was first produced, with audiences who remembered the time before safer sex and were themselves learning how their lives would change. As I was volunteering at a student preview show, I was privileged to attend a cast/crew talkback session, in which participants in the show provided some of their perspectives and some context to the young audience. I think it is still funny for modern audiences, and its message celebrating the joy in committed love is universal.
Jeffrey is playing at the Walterdale Theatre until Saturday February 14th (another option for your Valentines’ Day date!) with tickets at Tix on the Square.