Good enough for Broadway


By Scott Harrah

“Joy” looks at gay relationships with infectious energy

In the mid-1990s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, most gay plays focused on how the community was dealing with the epidemic. In 1994, San Francisco playwright John Fisher penned “Joy,” a lighthearted look at gays and lesbians falling in love for the first time. His intention was to create a play that celebrated life and love at a time when things were quite grim for gays. The play had a successful run at the University of California-Berkeley and in San Francisco, and was brought back to life earlier this year at the Producers Club in New York. Director Ben Rimalower’s vibrant and luminous revival of Joy at the Actors’ Playhouse in the West Village seems to have been updated slightly for the new millennium, but it remains a fun romantic comedy about finding love and losing it, and the joy of experiencing love regardless of one’s sexual orientation

Paul (Paul Whitthorne) is a frustrated, outspoken graduate student completing a controversial doctoral dissertation about the life of Jesus Christ. He meets Gabriel (Christopher Sloan), a closeted, slightly innocent undergraduate with a romantic demeanor. The two learn to balance their new relationship with their distinct identities. Meanwhile their friends Kegan (January LaVoy) and Elsa (Ryan Kelly) plunge into a passionate lesbian romance. One of Paul’s professors, Corey (Ken Barnett), starts having an affair with drunken blond party guy Christian (played with aplomb by Ben Curtis, the “Dell dude” from the famous TV commercials). Young, bi-curious sailor Darryl (Michael Busillo) adds even more sexual tension to the friends’ lives.

Paul and Gabriel’s relationship is strong but volatile, but does not have the same happy outcome as that of their friends. Some of the characters are stereotypical but still well developed, and the dialogue and plot twists are slightly predictable, but Joy is still much more realistic and truthful than any episode of Will & Grace. The show’s few sex scenes are done tastefully, without any gratuitous nudity.

Although the play is not a musical, various members of the cast sing a number of great old Cole Porter and Gershwin tunes, including “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and “You’re the Top.” Wilson Chin’s set, featuring the San Francisco skyline at night, adds whimsy to the story. David Kaley’s great costumes and James DeForte’s clever choreography help polish the show’s production values, and give everything a good-enough-for-Broadway quality.

This is a seamless production with infectious energy. Rimalower’s direction is razor-sharp, and the subplots all intertwine well without becoming too confusing. The cast is also truly first-rate. Paul Whitthorne has just the right amount of abrasiveness to make the lead character of Paul believable but also sympathetic, and Christopher Sloan is equally outstanding as his lover, Gabriel. The gorgeous Ryan Kelly is marvelous as the blonde Jewish American princess Elsa, as is January LaVoy. Ben Curtis is hilarious as the surfer-dude type Christian, and manages to pull off three drag scenes with conviction.

It is indeed refreshing to see a gay play with an original narrative that doesn’t need to rely on gimmickry like half-naked hunks, and also doesn’t preach and try to deliver a heavy-handed message. Joy is simply a light, entertaining evening of comic theater that offers pure late-summer escapism.

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