Paul Whitthorne, Christopher Sloan,January LaVoy, and Ryan Kelly in Joy
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Paul Whitthorne, Christopher Sloan,
January LaVoy, and Ryan Kelly in Joy
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
When Joy played at The Producers Club earlier this year, I was completely charmed by John Fisher's witty romantic comedy with music. Now the show has transferred to an Off-Broadway run at The Actors' Playhouse. The larger theater is a perfect fit and has allowed certain production elements -- mainly, James DeForte's choreography -- to be expanded. Fisher has tightened the script by eliminating a superfluous character, trimming a couple of scenes, and making a few other tweaks. All of these changes are for the better, and yet Joy has lost some of the magic that made the previous production so special.

The play revolves around a group of friends living in San Francisco in the mid-to-late 1990s. Paul (Paul Whitthorne) is a grad student who's writing a dissertation with the provocative thesis that Jesus was gay; his chance encounter with a singer named Gabriel (Christopher Sloan) leads to a budding romance. Meanwhile, Paul's best friend Kegan (January LaVoy) embarks on her first lesbian affair with Elsa (Ryan Kelly), a woman whom she meets at a crosswalk. Rounding out the company are Ken Barnett as Corey, one of Paul's professors (and ex-lovers); Michael Busillo as Elsa's cousin Darryl; and Ben Curtis (known to TV viewers as the "Dell Dude") as Christian, a college student who seems more interested in hopping into bed with his professors than in getting an education.

Ben Rimalower's direction of the show is stylish and well-suited to the quirkiness of Fisher's script; asides to the audience, as well as song and dance breaks, are incorporated with ease. (Heard during the course of the show are such classics as "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," and "I'll Be Seeing You.") Wilson Chin's set, Ben Stanton's lighting, and David Kaley's costumes are all positive contributions. The main problem in this production boils down to the casting of the central role. At The Producers Club, Paul was played by Harris Doran, who perfectly captured the mixture of charm, bitchiness, and sex appeal that defines the character. The audience needs to key into Paul immediately, but Whitthorne indicates his personality traits rather than embodying them. He is more effective once he relaxes into the part, and he does rather well in the second act; a scene late in the play, during which a heartbroken Paul confides his unhappiness to Corey, is quite moving and emotionally grounded.

Other cast changes are less problematic. Barnett is excellent as Corey, displaying an uptight façade and a softer, more emotionally vulnerable interior. LaVoy has a strong physical presence even if her line delivery is sometimes a bit rote. Kelly doesn't quite pull off the dichotomy of her character, who is sexually free-spirited but politically closeted. Still, she and LaVoy have some nice moments together; their first, wordless meeting is one of the production's high points. Busillo is cute and likeable as Darryl but doesn't bring much depth to the role.

Both returning cast members have improved on already fine performances. Sloan is an utterly charming Gabriel; his facial expressions and body language convey as much as his lines do, and his singing is sweet and tender. Curtis is hilariously adorable as Christian, exhibiting keen comic timing. Fisher's writing is sharp and intelligent, his digressions into sexual politics both amusing and thought provoking. Joy remains a terrific new play that is well worth seeing even in this imperfect production.

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[To access Dan Bacalzo's February 4, 2005 review of the Off-Off-Broadway production of Joy, click here.]