Joy: Let's Face the Music and Laugh
There's something about an evening view of a bridge with a city skyline in the background and stars twinkling above that insures the clever urban banter and quirky sexiness of romantic comedy. Happily, set designer Wilson Chin provides a dreamy representation of such a bridge for the backdrop of John Fisher's funny and charming romantic comedy, Joy. Lighting designer Ben Stanton washes it in colorful evening shades with many shiny dots of light above.
But wait... that's not the Brooklyn Bridge... or the one on 59th Street... and what skyline is that? Being a snobby Manhattanite I normally refuse to believe that romantic comedy exists west of the Hudson or east of the... East. Which may be the reason why Joy feels so New York to me. That and the abundance of music by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. But no, this is San Francisco in the mid-90's, and I suppose they have a bridge and a skyline and perhaps a smattering of people who enjoy Broadway showtunes too.
Although Fisher centers the stories of his two main romantic couples around a serious social issue, the personal preference of how openly a gay person chooses to live, it's more of a wedge between the lovers than a political debate. Better to just kick back and take in the neurotic angst, clever (and often bitchy) dialogue and the stylish romance of people dancing in dinner jackets and ballroom gowns.
"A gay man singing a love song", is how college student Paul (Paul Whitthorne) best defines the word "joy". Without the pressures of procreation there is simply desire unencumbered by need. But Paul is a bit more intense than these opening thoughts may suggest. His professor, Corey (Ken Barnett), is disenchanted with his proposed dissertation proving Jesus Christ was gay. While Paul is passionate about being aggressively open about his sexual preference, Corey (also gay, as is everyone else in the play) believes a stealthy assimilation is the more productive path to acceptance.
But Paul will have none of that. In a chance meeting with Gabriel (Christopher Sloan), Paul is immediately challenging the intimidated young man's claim that he's not gay. Later on, he throws a drag party and and is incensed when guests arrive improperly garbed. At an art museum's fund-raising party when it becomes apparent that the guests are uncomfortable hearing men sing romantic duets to each other, Paul angrily takes the stage and belts out "Love For Sale."
As played by Whitthorne, Paul tends to perform in real life, continually posturing and flaming whenever on the attack, but eventually he kicks himself for his abrasiveness and goes through wacky lengths to pursue the sweetly attractive Gabriel. Sloan is a mild-mannered delight in the role, physically expressive and with a warm singing voice.
Paul's friend Kegan (a funny, self-effacing January LaVoy) has flipped over the hot blond dancer, Elsa (Ryan Kelly), she barely made eye contact with at a crosswalk. The author cleverly has this scene recreated as a pantomime, one of director Ben Rimalower's many high points, where the two of them show their mutual attraction to the audience, but never to each other. Elsa, more experienced as a lesbian and adept at using her attractiveness, is played by Ryan with a fun confident flair. In a very funny scene, Kegan nervously apologizes for her lack of experience after their first time having sex. Elsa explains that she started very young, having sex with a girlfriend from ages 11 to 15 until, "she found out it was sex."
But like Paul and Gabriel, Kegan and Elsa differ on how uncloseted they should be. Being known as a couple to their friends and hanging out in The Castro, San Francisco's predominantly gay community, is one thing, but Elsa believes living together as a lesbian couple is a political act. Not to mention, she hasn't told her parents yet.
Elsa has a cousin, Darryl (Michael Busillo, who sings and dances well in a small role), who partners with her in a pretty bad college dance recital, a fun scene choreographed with intentional ineptness by James DeForte. In another small role Ben Curtis scores some good laughs (and one sweet moment) as the thick boy toy, Christian.
Like a carefree summer fling, Joy is best left unexamined too deeply. It's a frothy bit of sexy comic charm mixing high style and romantic silliness.