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Critical Eye: Quipping Boy

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 2 (1993), pp. 116-119.

A friend of mine recently observed that if the 80s could be summed up as the Decade of Greed, then the 90s would be called the Decade of Fear. And with good cause: desperate American conservatives groping for a post-Soviet demon, bloody ethnic nationalism in eastern Europe; dwindling ozone layers; and a worldwide plague called AIDS.

So, to while away some of the final hours before the earth implodes, I thought I’d see a comedy that might make light of my fears. Jeffrey, by Paul Rudnick, opened in January at the WPA Theatre. It doesn’t grapple with all of the decade’s problems, just AIDS, but demanding more than one catastrophe per play struck me as unreasonable, if not imprudent.

Jeffrey forswears sex shortly before falling in love at first sight with an HIV-positive man, Steve. Witticisms zing back and forth as Rudnick lampoons the absurd situations created both by AIDS and homophobia. In and around the one-liners that Frank Rich compared to Oscar Wilde’s, Jeffrey struggles between involvement with or escape from the problems of love in the time of AIDS. The play ends with Jeffrey opting for a relationship with Steve. Its closing image evokes a sentimental metaphor from earlier in the play, tapping a balloon back and forth before a panoramic view of Manhattan, while the music of George Gershwin swells.

Middle-brow? Certainly. I was free to laugh, and I did, at length. I hadn’t seen anything deep, but I felt good about the evening. At least, I did until I read some of Jeffrey’s reviews.

Critics steamed at Rudnick for writing a play that was morally and artistically evasive and irresponsible. Maybe worse. David Richards in the New York Times, Jan Stuart in Newsday, and Melanie Kirkpatrick in the Wall Street Journal focused not so much on Jeffrey’s acknowledged structural flaws as on Rudnick’s levity in the face of tragedy. But nearly everyone raised an eyebrow at mining AIDS for laughs. Michael Feingold, in the Village Voice, expressed “surprise… that a wit of Rudnick’s playfulness wants to tread the emotionally and politically volatile ground of the plague’s killing fields, where any misstep might trigger a land mine.”

Boom. While holding up Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room as a model “no less hilarious for looking death squarely in the eyes,” Richards groused, “The central preoccupation of [Rudnick’s] play… is as sobering as a bucket of ice water: How do you love someone with the specter of death leering greedily over your shoulder…. I’ve rarely seen a comedy as eager as Jeffrey to sidestep the real anguish in its heart.” Referring to a scene where Jeffrey quips away while being pummeled by a couple of homophobic thugs, Jan Stuart snipped, “Gay-bashing has never been as much bubbly, sophisticated fun as it is in Jeffrey.” Kirkpatrick warned that “behind the hilarity is a profoundly disturbing expression of contemporary values.”

What’s interesting about this reaction to Jeffrey is the negotiation between aesthetic and moral judgments. It’s not just that, as John Simon commented, “Rudnick cheats” by allowing “persons to fall out of character and situations out of any sense, to get his laughter.” Richards, Stuart, and Kirkpatrick thought Rudnick cheated, too, but where Simon thought Rudnick betrayed the world of the play, they accused him of also short-changing the world beyond the play.

No doubt, there is an overlap. The most clear-cut instance is Stuart’s objection to the characters as stereotypes who turn “into Oscar Wilde wind0up dolls, minstrel-show homosexuals who camp, dish, and hoof their way to the funeral.” Stereotypes on stage are morally offensive, clichéd, and artistically dull. I’m only surprised there hasn’t been more criticism of the stream of stereotypically gay characters in plays like Burn This. This silence has helped inure us to gay stereotypes; we’ve also been numbed by stock characters going back to commedia dell’arte and Plautus. But stereotypes and stock characters are not the same. It’s one thing to have a miser in a play; it’s another if the miser’s a Jew. Rudnick offers us a gay interior designer, a gay chorus boy in Cats, a gay actor, a gay priest. All he left out was a hair dresser. Even when Rudnick deflates one stereotype, it’s only to blow another one up to take its place: as when one character says, “All gay men aren’t crazy about sex; all men are crazy about sex. All gay men are crazy about opera.” I laughed at this line, but in hindsight such jokes leave a bitter aftertaste—not from sudden recognition of any ironic undercutting but from anger at myself for being a cheap laugh. There’s a school of comic thought that defends minstrel show humor when it’s done in-house, but it’s seldom innocuous, always shallow.

Stuart also took ot task Jeffrey’s message that “love, and not self-denial, is the affirmative response to death.” Here, the overlap between aesthetic and moral issues gets a little less comfortable. Stuart criticized this message as “out of step.” “The New York gay community,” Stuart said, “made this particular leap at least five years ago.” Stuart’s point must sound tenuous to at least some people within the gay community. In April, Lanford Wilson told the Advocate that Jeffrey’s message is far from a given. Discussing “gay plays,” Wilson reflected on a regression since the 80s: “Well, we had Bent and Fifth of July and Torch Song Trilogy, which was great, and La Cage aux Folles, which was all right. But since AIDS… Maybe Jeffrey will help, but people are just scared shitless. We’re not funny and we’re not exotic anymore. We’re dangerous, and we’re Typhoid Marys.”

The same idea Stuart depicted as a platitude jolted Melanie Kirkpatrick into a moralistic tizzy. Kirkpatrick spoke of the play’s “disquieting” implications. The first was a “profoundly disturbing expression of contemporary values” in Jeffrey’s nostalgia for “pre-AIDS days, when bathhouse became funhouse… Jeffrey does not question that ethos; instead, it mourns its decline.” The second “even more disquieting message stemmed from the fact that “Steve is asking Jeffrey to risk his life. There is never any suggestion that Steve is selfish or to use an unfashionable word, wrong, to ask anyone to take such a risk. Nor is there any suggestion that Steve and Jeffrey might become friends, not lovers.”

The play is (understandably) nostalgic; however, there’s never any suggestion that Jeffrey and Steve are running off to have unsafe sex. Jeffrey’s commitment is clearly emotional, vaguely sexual, and definitely not suicidal. On top of her debatable interpretation of the play’s ending, Kirkpatrick’s moralizing quickly slipped from disquietude to an indignation that divorced her judgment from the world of the play. She compared Jeffrey to La Dame aux Camelias, justifying the analogy by saying it has “a plot like Jeffrey’s about a similar moral and social problem.” La Dame, we are told, rises above Jeffrey because its main character shuns her lover to save him.

Anyone who has seen the Dumas play, watched Greta Garbo play the deathbed scene in the film adaptation, Camille, or heard Verdi’s operatic version, La Traviata, has seen how three geniuses of theater dealt with the tragic grandeur of a woman who puts the life of someone she loves above that of her own.

Genre trouble. Kirkpatrick compares a 19th century melodrama containing nary a chuckle to a revue whose purpose was, as Rudnick defensively wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece, to “use camp, irony and epigram to, if not defeat [AIDS], at least scorn and contain it,” because “only laughter can make the nightmare bearable.” On some extremely fundamental level, a critic has to accept a play on its own terms, or else the discrepancy between what’s going on in the critic’s mind and what’s happening on stage may turn comic itself.

Rudnick’s own Times article defined his play in social utilitarian terms, not unlike the critics who discuss his play in pragmatic, ethical terms. Message should not be ignored, but it’s only a notch above biography in relevance. Leni Riefenstahl, for example. Riefenstahl’s ideology and the ideology of her films are abhorrent, but the movies themselves are skillfully crafted, ingenious. I do not compare Rudnick and Riefenstahl; I do compare their critics, who think that art can be ruined by its message. Tainted, maybe, but not ruined. Light treatment of AIDS, in itself, would not be enough to condemn the play if it functioned well.

Stephen Holden, who wrote the Times’s first of three Jeffrey reviews, praised it as “completely up to the minute and traditional at the same time. The predicament of true love thwarted by obstacles is as old as comedy itself. But in Jeffrey the stumbling block isn’t a disapproving parent,” it’s AIDS. This is precisely where Rudnick evokes the most wrath from the other critics. We can still enjoy traditional comic plotting—crotchety parent or jealous lover tries to obstruct a marriage between a man and woman in love—though virtually no one who is a product of Anglo-European culture believes that such a couple should not be allowed to marry. We do not ask such a comedy to “address” its “issue.” But when a playwright changed the traditional scenario from a man and a woman to a man and a man, and then replaces the crotchety parent with AIDS, suddenly we see on stage the things we have read about in newspapers. And David Richards saw the grafting of AIDS onto a genre normally unburdened by issues as trivializing the disease.

Richards conceded, “Understandably, Mr. Rudnick wants to buck up morale,” but went on to lament the success with which he did so: “Jeffrey is ultimately a ‘safe play,’ protected from any invasive insights by the Saran Wrap of the author’s facile wit.” Is that such a problem? The reviews of Richards, Kirkpatrick, and, to some extent, Stuart reminded of Auden’s line, invoked most recently in Robert Hughes’s The Culture of Complaint, from “Under the Lyre”: “Zeus’ inscrutable decree [that]…[o]rdains that vaudeville shall preach.” It’s not good enough that Jeffrey made us laugh. Did it make us laugh by allaying our concerns, by confronting our fears, or by sidestepping the sensitive territory where minor authors fear to tread?

The problem with Richards’s point is that, like Kirkpatrick, he tries to diminish the type of gallows humor that Rudnick often succeeds in creating. Richards wants a Peter Barnes humor, which makes you feel worse about life after a laugh than you did before it. Perhaps he wants humor like the last 20 minutes The Ruling Class, so dark that it precludes laughter. Rudnick hardly needs to inject darkness into Jeffrey. Fear seeps through every gap in its understandable escapism. Besides, death from AIDS is not the only thing worrying the gay community, and Rudnick uses a spotty technique that frees him to nail the Catholic Church, gay-bashers, alienated parents, and self-help evangelists.

Does Rudnick sidestep the issue of loving a man with AIDS? Not quite. He deals with Jeffrey’s evasion as a potential response to the issue. From fear of infection, Jeffrey abstains from sex; from fear of painful loss, Jeffrey abstains from loving a person he knows will die. Out of fatigue from these fears and the mood described above by Lanford Wilson, Jeffrey decides to run away form the gay community altogether, to go back home to the Midwest. When he ultimately decides not to disengage himself from these issues, Jeffrey does so with a shrug that I found more human, albeit fatalistic, than if he had spewed forth a well-organized argument to justify his reversal. It is not an exhaustive, multidimensional exploration. But the detachment that allows people to laugh at a terrible situation can also be the detachment that lessens their vulnerability ot the problem. No subjects are unsuitable to comedy; moments are. That, in part, is why a play like Peter Barnes’s Laughter, about the Holocaust, goes unproduced, as opposed to his other dark comedies. We are still too close to that historical moment. In contrast, Monty Python can do a completely silly group of skits lampooning the Spanish Inquisition, and no one is offended. Perhaps that is why Jeffrey veers away from engaging the issue of AIDS and instead focuses on the issue of engaging AIDS. One step back from the abyss, and yet, because we are separated from the time of AIDS by nothing, it is as close as we can get to confronting a problem while still preserving one of the few things that makes us worth saving: a sense of humor.

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