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‘Jeffrey’ latest in WPA’s stable

While Paul Rudnick was finishing his screenplay for “Addams Family Values” last summer, his New York agent walked his latest play over to the 122-seat WPA Theater, a grungy shoebox under the crumbling remains of the elevated Penn Central rail line in Chelsea.

The play, “Jeffrey,” has become the season’s first off-Broadway comedy hit and another notch in the belt of the theater that launched “The Little Shop of Horrors” and “Steel Magnolias.”

And as unlikely as its hit plays is the crossover success of some key people associated with the tiny theater. Start with “Little Shop” librettists Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman–the musical team behind “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Now comes Rudnick, at 34 already an established Hollywood veteran who also endured the very special experience of having Nicol Williamson star in his first Broadway play. Rudnick and his agent, Helen Merrill, were confident that WPA artistic director Kyle Renick would respond well to “Jeffrey.” For one thing, the agent had a longstanding friendship with Renick. And this was, after all, the theater that launched the careers of Ashman and Menken.

With “Jeffrey,” the first out-and-out knee-slapper of an AIDS play to take New York, the WPA has come up with another horrific comedy. The company’s 12th commercial transfer is also the source of what is fast becoming the most quoted new line about the disease: “It’s still our party.”

It’s the punch line to a speech delivered by the spirit of a chorus boy who has recently died of AIDS. He is cajoling the all-but-defeated hero into abandoning his fear-induced paralysis. “Think of AIDS as the guest who won’t leave, the one we all hate,” says the spirit, still decked out in his “Cats” costume. “But it’s still our party.”

There’s something of a fun-house mirror effect in this affirmation of life, love and sex coming from a member of the theatrical community, which has been so devastated by AIDS. Actor-playing-dancer-playing-Cat gives the speech from the stage of a company that has lost two of its three founders to the disease. All this in what is being hailed the funniest comedy of the season.

And the WPA is certainly a cozy place for the party. “It’s the ultimate off-Broadway hole-in-the-wall theater,” said Menken, whose longtime collaboration with lyricist, director and WPA co-founder Ashman resulted in “Little Shop,” the show that grounded the WPA financially and made its name. “The degree of control that a writer has over his work at the WPA exceeds any other situation I’ve ever been in.”

Bound for larger venue

“Jeffrey” was budgeted at about $ 125,000 by the not-for-profit company, a meager sum even by hole-in-the-wall standards. But Rudnick’s comedy about a gay man who, fearing AIDS, decides to give up sex altogether has scored good reviews , better word of mouth and a two-week, sold-out extension. Producers Richard Frankel, Steven Baruch and Thomas and Jack Viertel will move the show to the larger Minetta Lane Theater March 6, three weeks after Sunday’s closing at the WPA.

“Jeffrey,” then, will mark the latest in a line of high-profile, small-budget productions that have given the WPA a visibility that dwarfs its operating costs. The Rudnick comedy, staged by Christopher Ashley, joins a list that includes Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” the first Ashman-Menken collaboration “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” Tom Topor’s “Nuts,” Larry L. King’s “The Night Hank Williams Died” and Charles Busch’s “The Lady in Question” and “Red Scare on Sunset.”

And, of course, “Little Shop.” The musical, now tied with “Our Town” as the most-produced show in American high schools, earned the WPA $ 1.7 million in the decade following its initial staging in 1982. Suddenly a struggling, seat-of-the-pants operation was a real player off-Broadway. Although an earlier incarnation of the WPA (the initials stand for Workshop of the Players Art) dates back to 1971, the WPA of today was founded in 1976, when Renick, Ashman and director R. Stuart White took over the 99-seat theater a few blocks from the current home.

They put up their first six plays for a minuscule $ 36,000, and while the work, notably “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” and “Gorey Stories,” captured the attention of The New York Times, a more personal challenge was left wanting. Ashman and White, lovers at the time, had embarked on the project as a way of saving their foundering relationship. The professional journey was a success, but the personal gambit failed, and the two separated before White became an early AIDS casualty, at the age of 33, in 1983.

Ashman went on to his famous collaboration with Menken, not only at the WPA but at the Walt Disney Studios, where the team wrote the Oscar-winning scores to “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Ashman completed some lyrics for the current release “Aladdin” before dying of AIDS complications in 1991.

A lean operation

“Steel Magnolias” is the company’s only transfer besides “Little Shop” to turn a profit, bringing home about $ 500,000 in the last five years. Royalties from both shows contributed $ 108,000 to WPA coffers last season, a significant chunk of its total income of $ 721,000, about $ 1,000 more than last season’s expenses.

Content to remain lean (Renick is one of only three full-time staffers), the WPA operates in the black with a small but loyal base of subscribers (1,100), decent box office ($ 181,000 in subscriber and single ticket sales last year), and contributions ($ 345,000 last year).

While the transfer and critical acclaim of “Jeffrey” is likely to bolster the WPA’s reputation as a seedbed for offbeat, no-frills commercial product, the fiscal fallout is far less certain. For the WPA to see any real profit from the “Jeffrey” transfer, the commercial run needs to succeed. The transfer rights were purchased by the producers for a modest $ 25,000 (which went directly to production expenses), but the deal also calls for the WPA to get 2% of the commercial run’s gross and 10% of the net (subject to a royalty pool arrangement).

But the play, which includes explicit discussions and simulated depictions of gay sex, is nobody’s idea of a sure thing.

“This is not going to be an easy row we’re hoeing,” Frankel said. “Despite good reviews, we don’t know if ‘Jeffrey’ has huge cross-over potential.”

Sensitive subject

Indeed, “Jeffrey” risked offending WPA subscribers and gay theatergoers sensitive to laughter in the face of AIDS. But gay audiences have mostly embraced the humor Rudnick describes as “gay soul,” and WPA subscribers largely are standing by their theater.

Renick was determined to stage “Jeffrey” after reading a draft last summer. He connected with the play’s most controversial scene, wherein Jeffrey is propositioned by a lascivious, if philosophical, priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Displaying uncharacteristic anger, Renick says the scene underscored for him the hypocrisy he saw as rampant in the country, particularly in the Roman Catholic church’s attitude toward homosexuality and AIDS.

“This is the most unlikely play for all of this to be happening,” he said of the hoopla surrounding his hit, “but that has nothing to do with the reasons I originally wanted to do this play. Part of the reason for this play’s existence is the Catholic Church, and history will find the church accountable.”

Minutes later, Renick quietly recalled his friend and co-founder Ashman. “It’s true what we all say. It’s not only the people we’re losing to AIDS, but their work, their observations, that they’ll never share. It can’t be said often enough.”