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Jeffrey

Also: Patrick Kerr, Scott Whitehurst, Richard Poe and Harriet Harris.

Also: Patrick Kerr, Scott Whitehurst, Richard Poe and Harriet Harris.

Jeffrey” is the precise opposite of an escapist comedy. This extremely funny play takes an unflinching look at some of our era’s most painful realities — and then milks them for laughs.

AIDS, street violence, the difficulty of finding meaningful work and lasting relationships — playwright Paul Rudnick acknowledges them all during this Off Broadway hit, which is receiving its West Coast premiere at the Westwood Playhouse.

Rudnick doesn’t make light of these harsh facts, or trivialize them. But in chronicling the way people respond to them, he creates cathartic, healing humor.

The play’s farcical/satirical tone is set at the beginning, which finds each of the play’s eight actors emerging from a large bed. When one springs out encased totally in plastic wrap, Jeffrey (John Michael Higgins), a gay man living in New York City, decides he’s had enough. He declares to the audience that he is turning celibate; in an age dominated by a deadly disease, intimate contact is simply too complicated and risky.

His vow is quickly put to the test when he meets a cute bartender named Steve (Hank Stratton). Though their attraction is immediate and obvious, Jeffrey hesitates to get involved. When Steve informs him that he is HIV positive, Jeffrey’s feet turn even colder. Yes, he wants someone to love, but does he really want to get involved with someone he will almost certainly watch die?

That is the extent of the rather thin plot. The title character spends most of the play in Hamlet-like indecision, and in the process comes perilously close to being tiresome. Rudnick might have spent more time showing Jeffrey and Steve fall in love rather than making that a given and then letting Jeffrey mull the consequences for two hours.

However, we are usually laughing too hard to care much about the play’s flaws. Rudnick’s wit and imagination are as dazzling as his approach is audacious.

He has a way with a one-liner: a decidedly unorthodox priest asks Jeffrey, “How dare you give up sex when there are children in Europe who can’t get a date?” He also is a sharp satirist; parodies of a Marianne Williamson-like New Age guru and an AA-style meeting of sex addicts are among the play’s highlights.

The production is first-rate. Under director Christopher Ashley, the eight actors (seven of whom originated their roles in New York) perform with flair and near-perfect timing.

James Youmans’ evocative stage designs, which consist largely of slide projections, at times are as witty as the writing. For all its laughs, “Jeffrey” contains a serious theme: Don’t be so afraid of death that it interferes with your ability to enjoy life. That message may have particular urgency within the gay community, but it applies to everyone. It is not to be missed.

Jeffrey

(Westwood Playhouse; 499 seats; $ 37.50 top)

  • Production: Westwood Playhouse, Terri and Timothy Childs and Herb Goldsmith present the WPA Theatre production of a play by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Scenery and projections by James Youmans. Lighting by Donald Holder. Costumes by David C. Woolard. Original sound by Donna Riley. Musical staging by Jerry Mitchell. Opened and reviewed Sept. 28; runs through Nov. 21.
  • Crew:
  • Cast: Jeffrey ... John Michael Higgins Steve ... Hank Stratton Sterling ... Edward Hibbert Darius ... Bryan Batt
  • Music By: