TAMPA — Jeffrey opens with the title character announcing that he loves sex — "One of the truly great ideas" — but that he is giving it up. It's Manhattan in the early 1990s, and gay men are dying of AIDS at such an alarming rate that even safe sex doesn't seem like an option.
Jeffrey, an actor and waiter played by Daniel Rosenstrauch, has decided to be celibate because he is afraid of getting the disease, but what he most fears is falling in love with somebody who could die. And then while working out at the gym he meets Steve (Zackhary Myers), a hunky bartender who is Mr. Right but has been HIV-positive for five years. This leaves Jeffrey to wrestle with issues of love, loss and commitment.
Despite the dire scenario, Paul Rudnick's play is no melodrama. Instead, he deploys witty banter and outrageous fantasies to turn the tragedy and despair of AIDS into something of a laugh riot, from a "hoedown for AIDS" benefit at the Waldorf-Astoria to a cruising gay priest who equates Tommy Tune and musicals with God and heaven.
Hat Trick Theatre's production of Jeffrey, now at the Shimberg Playhouse of the Straz Center, is a slipshod affair, with some tiresomely amateurish acting, but director Keith Odums stages everything well enough — the opening, with seven men, one woman and a bed, is clever — that Rudnick's repartee comes through more or less intact. That is particularly true for the play's best-realized character, Sterling (Eric Swearingen), a droll decorator whose boyfriend, Darius (Jon Gennari), a dancer in the Cats chorus, is HIV-positive.
Asked by Darius what "connubial" — as in connubial bliss — means, Swearingen's Sterling, looking very '90s with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, explains, "It's when one of us can afford a cleaning woman."
Given the advances in treatment that make AIDS no longer the automatic death sentence it was, Jeffrey, which premiered off Broadway in 1993, now has the tone of a period piece. In some respects, Rudnick's play is the catty cousin of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's epic "gay fantasia" on AIDS. In Rosenstrauch's properly narcissistic portrayal, Jeffrey is a callow, Midwestern version of Louis Ironson, the leftist New York intellectual unable to deal with his ill boyfriend's impending doom in Angels.
AIDS wiped out a generation of gay men, and for all his jesting Rudnick captures the dread atmosphere of a time when memorial services for young men were so common they took on a kind of ritualistic routine, like just another Sunday brunch. It was a nightmare for a community that had burst out of the closet with hedonistic abandon. As Darius reflects on the dreary aftermath of taking AZT, charting T-cells and desperately seeking quack cures, he has an apt analogy for the epidemic: "Think of AIDS as the guest who won't leave, the one we all hate. But it's still our party."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.