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By Donald V. Calamia
As gay men buried more and more of their friends and lovers who succumbed to AIDS in the late 1980s and early '90s, playwright Paul Rudnick wrote what has since been called "the first successful American romantic comedy in response to the epidemic." Although the 1993 Jeffrey earned three Obie Awards and won the hearts of gays and straights alike, the comedy hasn't aged particularly well; the stereotypes can be somewhat offensive to the politically correct, and younger audience members are often clueless about the cultural references. ("All gay men are obsessed with opera? Did I miss a memo?" gay men in their early 20s must be asking themselves at one point during the show.)
But there's one thing that hasn't changed about the play and never will: It sure is funny and full of heart - and Joe Bailey's production now playing at The Ringwald in Ferndale has plenty of both!
Set in New York City in 1993, actor/waiter Jeffrey loves sex. (He's not promiscuous, he tells the audience. "It's such an ugly word. I'm cheap.") But living in one of the country's epicenters of the AIDS epidemic and fearful of the disease, the perpetually single young man from Wisconsin makes a life-altering decision. "Sex was never meant to be safe. Or fatal," he says. And so he decides to live a celibate life - which is easier said than done for a guy who admits to more than 5,000 sexual encounters.
Timing, however, is everything - and Jeffrey's resolve is immediately tested when he meets Steve, the man of his dreams, while at the gym. The two are immediately attracted to one another, but Jeffrey is determined NOT to hop in bed with the guy - despite Steve's valiant efforts otherwise.
Jeffrey eventually agrees to a date, but panics when Steve reveals that he's HIV-positive. Now, the normally cheerful Jeffrey is faced with a dilemma: Should he let his fears crush him? Or, knowing the risks, should he take a chance at a rich, full life?
Since Rudnick's story IS a comedy, its conclusion is fairly obvious. Getting there, though, is a wild ride - thanks to a script that sometimes seems more like a series of unconnected skits than a traditional, linear play. (Jeffrey is gay bashed, for example, but it's never referenced again.)
Yet in the hands of director Bailey, all the various disjointed parts become a very funny and entertaining whole - thanks to a troupe of actors who seem to be having blast throughout the entire performance.
Richard Payton is an effective storyteller as the show's narrator and lead character. His expressive face is especially well-utilized. And Dan Morrison is believable as the butch bartender, Steve.
However, it's the fine support that especially stands out in Bailey's production, as each of the other six actors has multiple moments to shine. Tony Gross is especially memorable as the Technicolor transsexual lesbian attending her first pride parade. So, too, is Joe Plambeck's randy priest. The always-beaming John Prakapas provides the show's eye candy as the delightfully furry Darius, a cute dancer in the Broadway production of Cats, while Melissa Beckwith plays all the female roles with gusto.
Who Wants Cake? Theatre at The Ringwald, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Fri.-Mon., through June 9. Tickets: $10-$20. For information: 248-556-8581 or www.whowantscaketheatre.com.
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