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Sheridan Wright and Ben Curtis of Joy
(Photo © Joy Jacobs)
Joy certainly lives up to its title. After seeing the show on opening night, I felt a bit giddy from having laughed so much. John Fisher's witty and satiric romantic comedy follows a group of friends -- gay, lesbian, and questioning -- as they fall in and out of love in San Francisco during the mid-1990s.

Paul (Harris Doran) is a graduate student of ancient history; he's working on a dissertation that seeks to prove that Jesus was gay "or, at least, predominantly homosexual as we would define it today." He meets a singer named Gabriel (Christopher Sloan), who claims to be straight. (Upon hearing this claim for the first time, Paul bursts into a fit of laughter.) Paul's best friend, Kegan (Natalie Joy Johnson), suddenly finds herself head over heels in love with Elsa (Becca Ayers), one of Gabriel's co-workers. Added to the mix are Corey (Gavin Esham), a professor in Paul's department as well as one of his dissertation readers and former lovers; Darryl (Sheridan Wright), a friend and singing partner of Gabriel's; and Christian (Ben Curtis), a recreational drug user who likes to sleep around with his professors of both genders. Brian Patacca rounds out the cast in two roles that intersect with the lives of the rest of the characters.

The play is structured as a fourth-wall-breaking narrative, with various ensemble members giving asides to the audience. Some of these are quick little quips to let us know what someone is thinking or not thinking, while others impart expository information to clue the audience in on the passage of time or shifts within the various relationships in the show. Occasionally, the characters stop a scene to argue a point with one another, or to clarify their intentions. It's all done in a light-hearted manner that stays fresh, thanks in large part to the crisp direction of Ben Rimalower.

Paul is the primary narrator; Doran brings to the role a confident swagger and a sexy smirk that often seems permanently affixed to his face. The character can be quite abrasive, and the actor doesn't shy away from showing Paul's more unpleasant side, but he plays the part with a buoyant energy that helps keep the show moving at a brisk pace.

As Gabriel, Sloan has great comic timing, and his facial expressions and somewhat goofy mannerisms make him quite adorable. Both Johnson and Ayers are fine but they don't have the kind of combustible sexual chemistry with each other that their characters' relationship demands. Curtis -- best known to TV-viewers as the "Dell Dude" -- is hilarious. Although his part doesn't require him to stretch too far from his already established persona, he does get to display some comic vulnerability in a couple of scenes. Wright does well with what he's given but I wish that his character was better established when first introduced, especially since he takes a significant role in the proceedings toward the end of the play.

Music plays a huge part in Joy, and the cast members are not only fine actors but also good singers. Sloan, in particular, is a terrific crooner. The show incorporates such standards as "You're the Top," "Night and Day," "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," and "I'll Be Seeing You." The show is not a musical, but the songs help to enhance the story and to establish a kind of wistful, nearly whimsical tone. Jeff Caldwell serves as music director while James DeForte handles the minimal choreography; a bizarrely comic duet between Elsa and Darryl is the most dance-intensive sequence of the production.

Joy could stand some trimming here and there, and not every staging choice works. There are also a few factual errors in Fisher's script. One of the scenes, set in 1994, has the characters discussing the movie Beautiful Thing, which wasn't actually released until 1996. Likewise, Paul and Gabriel claim that Ian McKellan was still closeted in 1994, whereas he came out publicly in 1988. Though such mistakes don't ruin the script, they do make you wish that Fisher had paid a bit more attention to detail.

Still, the play is very smart, the dialogue quite clever, and the character relationships nicely developed. Joy is scheduled to play through February 20 in the tiny Producers Club Theatre, which seems far too short a run for a show this entertaining. Hopefully, it will be able to transfer to a larger space with a bigger budget so that this delightful production can be seen by more people.


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