In 1992, in a tiny Off-Off-Broadway theater in New York City, a little comedy about AIDS opened: Jeffrey by Paul Rudnick. The charming comedy—about a gay actor/waiter in New York so terrified of AIDS that he gives up sex—was an instant hit: It not only moved on to a successful commercial run in New York, but also had productions throughout the country and the world.
In 1995, the charming little play became a charming little film starring Steven Weber as Jeffrey and Michael T. Weiss as his HIV-positive love interest, Steve; it also featured Hollywood heavyweights Patrick Stewart, Sigourney Weaver, Olympia Dukakis, and Nathan Lane, as well as winks to the audience by the likes of Bryan Batt, Christine Baranski, Kathy Najimy, Robert Klein, Camryn Manheim, Victor Garber, and Kevin Nealon.
When thinking about important cultural HIV milestones in the 40 years of the epidemic, heavy hitters like Angels in America, Rent, The Normal Heart, and Longtime Companions are the first to come to mind. Jeffrey has always been a favorite, but the effervescent comedy about the AIDS crisis is sometimes given a back seat. I recently revisited the film, and I found it just as funny, romantic, sexy, and delightful as I had when I first saw it in 1995. I wanted to know more about how this remarkable piece was conceived and produced, so I set out to interview Jeffrey’s creator, Paul Rudnick.
Paul Rudnick is a big-time writer. He’s the screenwriter responsible for such films as In and Out, Addams Family Values, Isn’t She Great, The Stepford Wives (2004), and the recent HBO Max production Coastal Elites; the playwright who composed The Naked Eye, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, The New Century, and Big Night; and the novelist whose newest work, a gay romantic comedy Playing the Palace, was just released. Not to mention his hilarious and pointed Twitter feed.
I took a chance and reached out to him on social media, and he couldn’t have been more warm, welcoming, and wonderful. I had a date with him in a recent Zoom chat, and we discussed all things Jeffrey.
The Origins of Jeffrey
Charles Sanchez: Hi there! It’s so nice to meet you.
Paul Rudnick: It’s nice to meet you.
Sanchez: I’m a little bit of a fan girl, and because of your hilarious Twitter feed I feel like we’re friends, so if I’m a little bit too familiar, I hope you forgive me.
Rudnick: (laughs) That sounds just about right.
Sanchez: Where are you right now?
Rudnick: I’m in my office in New York City, in the East Village.
Sanchez: Let’s talk about Jeffrey. It’s the ’90s, the middle of the AIDS crisis. What made you want to write a comedy about AIDS?
Rudnick: Well, I was a gay man, living in New York in the ’80s and the ’90s. It was such a horrifying, tragic time, but there was also a weird excitement. The mainstream media was completely ignoring the plague, and, Lord knows, the government was aggressively ignoring the plague, so it was one of the few times when theatre became essential.
When I went to see the original production of The Normal Heart at the Public Theater, they were scrolling the numbers of the infected and the dead on the walls of the set, and it was being updated at every performance. It was so volcanic. Not only was it a truly great play, it was also this source of information. You could feel the audience yearning to just hear about this stuff.
There was this climate of theater at that time. There were so many plays, masterpieces like Angels in America, and I thought, well, I’m a comic writer. I don’t know if there’s a place for me.
One of the earliest germs for the play itself was when a dear friend, William, and I were visiting somebody with AIDS in their last throes in the hospital. He was dying—heartbreaking—and the biggest pain in the ass of all time! He was really demanding. He would say, “You have to get me these particular foreign fashion magazines, this exact brand of orange juice, this kind of breath freshener,” and if you even presented alternatives, like the one you wanted wasn’t available, he would scream at you! And I thought, this man, I can’t blame him for anything, he’s in the worst possible place in his soon-to-be-ended life.
Afterwards, my friend and I were sitting outside on a bench outside the hospital, and William said, “You know, I love [him] dearly, and I wish only good things for him, but I really want to slap him!” And started laughing helplessly.
We’d both just come from the bedside of a dying man, and I realized, this is where we’re living now. I so appreciated that—especially at that time when there were no treatments available whatsoever, there weren’t even any tests—that a sense of humor and the wit of the gay community was one of the only weapons available, and I really wanted to pay tribute to that.
A fatal illness is never funny, but people’s responses—because they are suddenly in such a high stakes position and acting on so much passion and blind instinct—they will be funny. That’s what I wanted to explore, and that’s how I was able to get to a place of hope. I thought, there’s enough genuine tragedy in the world. There are pockets of joy that people are discovering.
I couldn’t help myself! I wrote Jeffrey. Originally, it had an alternate title; it was going to be called “Keep It in Your Pants.” I wisely changed that. One of our original producers, this wonderful straight guy, once told me that he liked that it was called Jeffrey because he knew it was gay but he wasn’t sure why. I thought, now you’re getting it.
Sanchez: Absolutely. When you hear “Jeffrey,” there is a little bit of a sassy shoulder and pursed lips.
How Jeffrey Got Its (Unlikely) Chance—and Ran With It
Rudnick: After I did the early drafts, we had a series of readings. At the very earliest readings, we had wonderful actors, some of them at the beginnings of their careers: David Hyde Pierce was in the first reading, B.D. Wong, Nathan Lane, just amazing people.
No theater in New York, let alone anywhere else, would go anywhere near the play. They were so shocked by it or appalled or simply put off. If I got any response, it would be from an artistic director saying, “Well, I enjoyed this, but our subscribers would never stand for it.”
I had a wonderful German agent at the time who is no longer with us, named Helen Merrill, who marched the play over to the WPA, which was this tiny Off-Off Broadway theater on 23rd Street, and she refused to leave until the artistic director, a man named Kyle Renick, had read the play. He became my patron saint. He said, “I know I’ll regret this, but I want to do it!” And he took it on.
When we were having auditions, every actor in Manhattan was warned away from it. They were told by their agents, who were often gay men, that even auditioning for this play would end their careers.
I was so grateful and so thrilled—we got this amazing group of people: John Michael Higgins and Tom Hewitt, Edward Hibbert, Bryan Batt, and Harriet Harris, and everybody else; they were all in. They were people—whether gay or straight, male or female—they were New Yorkers working in the theater, and they knew the truth of this material. The wonderful director, Chris Ashley, this was our first project together.
It was set for a run that was supposed to be like two weeks, if that. Then it was sort of miraculous: The play opened, and audiences started responding. It was remarkably well-received and ended up moving for a commercial run. One of the things I was so thrilled with was that all these actors who had been warned away from Jeffrey could not stop working! They all went with the play to L.A. and were all given TV things, movie things, you name it. They were rewarded for not only their amazing talent, but also for having courage.
With both the play and the movie, people would tell me, “Oh, New York and L.A. will love this, and maybe San Francisco, but nowhere else.” Suddenly, it was being done all around the world. Sometimes, they would change the title. In France, it was called, “Sex and Sequins.” It was done all around the country, in colleges and places where gay plays aren’t often performed.
There was a night when Larry Kramer came to see Jeffrey, and I was terrified because I knew his reputation as being the toughest cookie on earth. I thought, if he hates this, I’m going to be in so much trouble! He loved it, and he said that the play cheered him up and made him want to go on a date.
One of the other things that I enjoyed about the response to the play is that people appreciated that it was romantic. People often came to the show on first dates. There were serodiscordant couples who would go and see their lives included. And there were marriage proposals, even before marriage was legally possible.
Then Jeffrey became a movie, which was another completely unforeseen and delightful event. Although, at first, no one would be in the movie either! There were the same fears and the same warnings.
It wasn’t until Sigourney Weaver was the first person to say, “Yes, I will do this.” And then the dam broke and suddenly we had Patrick Stewart and Steven Weber and Michael T. Weiss and all these extraordinary performers.
They [the actors] were not making a penny, and they were getting like a folding chair and a bottle of water, if that. When we were filming the movie, it was on a very low budget, all around the city, no permits, sort of gonzo filmmaking. It was such a wonderfully insane experience!
Jeffrey’s Nuances and Legacy
Sanchez: What are the differences between the play and the movie?
Rudnick: It was one of the only times I’ve adapted my own work, and I was so smug! I thought, well this material is road-tested, this is going to be a walk in the park, I know exactly where every joke lands—and that’s simply not the case. In movie-making, it’s a different language. I really had to make some adjustments.
I do remember we shot at a genuine sex club on 14th Street. We had a room full of basically naked gay men, except for the occasional leather jock strap, chained to crosses being flogged, that kind of sex club. We ended up not being able to use the scene because it didn’t fit in the context of the rest of the movie. So yes, there were changes, but I love both versions.
Sanchez: What do you think happened to Steve and Jeffrey? Did they make it as a couple? Will there be a Jeffrey II?
Rudnick: Would I ever write a sequel? No. (laughs). But the more hopeful and maybe the more sentimental part of me imagines they are still together. I know couples like that, long-term survivors, and it’s completely possible. Maybe they broke up. Maybe Steve dumped Jeffrey. But I think the important thing is that Jeffrey had broken through his complete fear of contact and communication and participation in the world that he was in.
Sanchez: What do you think is the legacy of Jeffrey? Is it still relevant today?
Rudnick: With the younger generation, there’s now a genuine curiosity, almost a hunger for the information [about the AIDS crisis]. That wonderful miniseries that was on HBO, It’s a Sin, that Russell Davies set in the same era, was very successful and beautifully done. Now, people are willing to take another look.
We did a reading of the play a while back with wonderful actors: Michael Urie played Jeffrey, and Russell Tovey played Steve. It was interesting because it still really played, and some of the younger folks who were there were shocked at how sexual it was. People are still revisiting the movie and thinking of it fondly, so it’s still alive.
It’ll be interesting to see if Jeffrey returns. There’s been some talk about reviving it as a play. I think there might be a moment when that might be a feasible idea.
Sanchez: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I’m verklempt.
Rudnick: Thank you! It was a delight.
The film Jeffrey is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Rudnick’s new book is Playing the Palace, and you can follow him on Twitter at @PaulRudnickNY.