Rainbow Theatre Project’s latest offering is the early 1990s Paul Rudnick play “Jeffrey,” written and set during the AIDS crisis and directed by Robert Mintz. Through the lens of the title character, we are invited to visit (or re-visit, depending on your age) an era marked by fear, death, and confusion, but also a time buoyed by friendship, love, and bright sparks of hope. Not necessarily hope of
… a thoughtful and bittersweet period piece that will resonate with a varied audience even as it narrates a particular soul’s complicated journey to joy.
Although the play is billed as a comedy (and ’90s reviewers certainly saw it as such) and although there was a lot of laughter in the theatre on Friday night, I felt the play read as a tragi-comedy, if not a downright bittersweet meditation on the eternal questions of “Why?” and risk and love and loss.
Did the play come across as some much needed gallows humor in the 90’s, I wonder, when the setting wasn’t 25 years past us but right in the present? Sometimes owning the truth of a situation and laughing at the absurdity of our coping mechanisms is the only comfort we can find in harrowing times. Or, I wonder, is it my own lens as a woman in a hetero relationship that made me feel a greater sense of sadness as I observed a struggle that I wasn’t immersed in? Or perhaps my own life’s journey with its own traumas that brought out a deeper connection to the pain just underneath the surface of the laughs?
A thoughtful piece of art may produce more questions than answers, and I found that “Jeffrey” provided plenty of opportunities for internal reflection as the play progressed. While Jeffrey’s fears are specific to choosing an HIV-positive partner and are therefore sharper and more pressing, with a step back, they are universal to the longterm risks that any romantic partnership presents – fears for the future, uncertain health via old age or illness, possible tragedy, pain, break-ups, or suffering – and Jeffrey’s journey includes a lot of growing up as he is forced to decide if he wants to shut himself off from life in order to minimize his potential pain. Not to spoil it, but the ending did leave me with a smile despite some heart-wrenching grief on the way there.
Rinaldo Martinez gives a wonderful performance as Jeffrey as he wrestles his way along his path. Randyn Fullard as Darius brings light and happiness to gloriously contrast with Jeffrey’s gloomy outlook on life and Matthew Pauli as Darius’s boyfriend Sterling gives the needed emotional weight to his role, especially in his final confrontation with Jeffrey. Reginald Richard as love interest Steven brings not only smooth seductiveness to his role but also carries the bitterness, frustration, and hopefulness of his character equally well.
Ensemble members Craig Houk, Emily Levey, Joshua Street, and Rick Westerkamp did a fantastic job with multiple roles each and hit just the right notes to capture each of their characters’ quirks in many varied scenes. I enjoyed the simple but flexible set design by PJ Carbonell as it allowed the emotional journey to easily take center stage.
I recommend “Jeffrey” as a thoughtful and bittersweet period piece that will resonate with a varied audience even as it narrates a particular soul’s complicated journey to joy.
Advisory: Mature content. For adults only.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
“Jeffrey” by Rainbow Theatre Project at District of Columbia Arts Center plays through Feb. 10, 2019. For more information, click here.