Jeffrey is the best thing Raving Theatre has yet produced. The play itself, by Paul Rudnick, is tight and witty. There’s just enough bitchy repartee so you know you’re among friends, but not so much that you end up leaving the theatre having that “gay plays are so gay” conversation.
The dated part of this drama-first produced in 1992-has to do with the question of sympathy for its protagonist. Jeffrey is terrified of AIDS. So much so that he swears off men entirely. His anxiety probably reverberated with the queer zeitgeist of the early ’90s but today he comes off as a sniveling twit, and is barely likeable.
Artistic Director David Blue feels the same way about Matt Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band: “What a bunch of losers.” That play became controversial recently because of the self-loathing of its characters and its anachronistic setting in a pre-AIDS world.
Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, written 15 years later, focuses on a similar self-loathing, in the person of its quasi-hero. Jeffrey’s abandonment of sex extends to a prohibition on gay romance. He even refuses to attend New York’s Pride parade (he had laundry to do).
Director Neil Scott, then, had the dubious job of making Jeffrey, played by newcomer Lawrence Milman, a lovable, if flawed, man. “Neil worked really hard with him on that,” says Blue.
And the work paid off. Milman’s Jeffrey is rosy-cheek sweet and sexy as all get-out. Plus you get to see his bum.
Jeffrey opens with its only sex scene-myriad men crawl over Jeffrey’s bed explaining why they can’t have sex, until finally a man enters completely mummified in Saran Wrap and we are to understand that AIDS paranoia has reached its ultimate peak.
But had it? As the children of the ’90s discover sex, a new kind of prudery blooms-one fostered by growing up in a world so steeped in AIDS awareness that one can’t imagine sex as anything but mediated.
Rudnick sounded this alarm himself, by giving Jeffrey the despairing line: “Sex shouldn’t be safe, or negotiated, or fatal.”
Jeffrey’s refusal to love-by the rules of mid-’90s gay theatre-requires that the man of his dreams enter stage left in the next scene.
Raving Theatre regular Jamie Foster plays Steven, the beau, but his chemistry with Milman feels stunted at best. Milman is a straight man but his off-stage orientation wasn’t the stumbling block in sparking a believable romance opening night. I suspect that some casting decisions simply doom the actors to fail-and Foster’s campy shtick (which has worked in other roles) doesn’t fly here.
Those who fell in love with Milman’s spiced apple pie portrayal, or just with his bum, during this short run can hope for more of him in the future. Blue has a habit of developing a stable of actors and directors. So much so that Raving Theatre plays have developed a common feel; quirky and amateurish, in the best sense.
After producing his own plays in recent years (Most Happy Fag in the World, Happy Birthday) Blue turns to tried and true theatre this year. After Jeffrey comes a Christmas production of Dan Goggin’s Nuncrackers and then Terrance McNally’s fantastic ensemble piece Love! Valour! Compassion!
“We had to do something more commercial,” explains Blue, whose previous productions have all lost money, with the exception of last year’s Happy Birthday.
Ultimately, Blue wants to find a space, like Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, where queer theatre can have a permanent home in Vancouver. “A theatre about the size of the Waterfront,” muses Blue. “I’d prefer something on Davie.” It’s a dream he’s been talking about for a while now, and one he hopes to share with others.
The founder of I’m a Little Pickled Theatre Company, would be an ideal candidate: “I’m in love with Randie Parliament,” Blue confesses. Parliament founded the Pickled company in 2002, and has enlisted the help of fellow William Davis Centre graduates to create space for a young queer theatre scene in Vancouver.
Meanwhile, Raving Theatre is evolving into something much more professional than it first appeared to be. Blue’s switch toward the work of established playwrights, and his divvying up of creative labours (he won’t be directing any plays himself this year) signals a growing and vital company with a promising future.