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Joy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Even if we accept as true the oft-stated maxim that there are only a limited number of possible stories (what's the count now, seven, nine?), what separates good plays from bad is often as simple as how familiar ideas can be spun anew. John Fisher's play Joy, which is receiving its New York premiere at The Producers Club, is a lively example of how to make the old-fashioned seem glamorously newfangled.

Chances are that today no one would look askance at a play about eight twenty-something straight people swapping partners and trying to find love, or at the very least happiness. But make those eight people gay, set the story in San Francisco in the mid-1990s (when the play was first produced), toss in a few musical numbers drawn from the catalogs of Porter, Gershwin, Fain, and other peerless 20th century songwriters, and hire performers dripping with appeal, and a surprisingly intoxicating (and theatrical) alchemical reaction results.

Okay, the outcome isn't entirely magical; this season likely used up its quota of unapologetic enchantment in the oddly similar Sailor's Song, John Patrick Shanley's thoroughly disarming, dance-kissed play that played at the Public in the fall. But, as written by Fisher, this story about a stubborn young ancient history student named Paul (Harris Doran) and the chic singer named Gabriel (Christopher Sloan) he romances over the course of a year, is clever and enveloping. And there are few faults in this lean, tight production, which has been directed with an impish comic sense and almost perfect pacing by Ben Rimalower.

Rimalower also manages to nicely maintain the balance between the central story of Paul and Gabriel and the subsidiary love plots that contrast and intertwine with it. It's in attempting to flesh these out that Fisher most frequently falters; Paul's professor Corey (Gavin Esham) and his dim-witted student Christian (Ben Curtis), and Paul's feminist friend Kegan (Natalie Joy Johnson) and the woman she lusts after (named Elsa and played by Becca Ayers) lack the bite and specificity that make the Paul-Gabriel relationship such a compelling centerpiece.

Paul the activist and Gabriel the reformed closet case have a love-hate relationship that finds them arguing bitterly one moment and extravagantly making up the next. Gabriel's not easily frightened off by Paul's pet theories and attitudes, religious (he believes that Jesus Christ was gay) or social (he possesses a concrete vision for the gay community that no one can live up to), while Paul is perfectly willing to introduce Gabriel to the lustful joys that are his primary goal in life. Most typical romantic comedies - which Joy unquestionably is, if it must be assigned a genre - would strain to better define two characters through their unique love of life and each other. The success of this relationship is crucial to the show, and beautifully succeeds.

That's primarily because of Sloan, who proves ideal as a reluctant leading man. He possesses a perfectly pitched, wistful romantic sensibility and an ingratiating manner that bubbles with warmth and stage presence. He's also a fine singer, with a smooth, rich voice that lustrously caresses the songs Fisher has woven into the narrative, including an ethereal "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," an aching "But Not For Me," and an hilariously peppy (and double entendre-laden) "You're the Top" he sings with Sheridan Wright, who makes a strong impression in an otherwise minor role.

Doran is considerably less polished as Paul, coming across too abrasive and brittle and not always successfully finessing some of his role's emotional transitions. Esham is fine if somewhat stilted as Corey, and though Curtis's wry delivery and poise create a significantly humorous Christian, Curtis never completely sheds the "Dell Dude" persona for which he is so well known. Johnson and Ayers are fine as Kegan and Elsa, but Brian Patacca tends to overplay his somewhat overwritten role of a relationship killer.

Despite a second act that takes a bit too long to get up to speed, nothing can kill the energy Joy generates once it gets going. Wilson Chin's straightforward and lovely San Francisco-skyline inspired scenic design, Ben Stanton's appealing lighting, James DeForte's spirited choreography, and Jeff Caldwell's sensitive musical direction only enhance the experience, ensuring that the laughs and good feelings don't stop until the end of the play arrives.

When it does, ushered in by a heartfelt, full-company rendition of the timeless "I'll Be Seeing You," it's hard not to wish it wouldn't; the unavoidably less friendly world awaits just outside the Producers Club's doors. The song's lyrics refer to such things as a chestnut tree, a children's carousel, and the morning sun, all images redolent of the youthful, fanciful emotions that have characterized love in drama, verse, and song since time immemorial. It's this tradition of unadorned affection and passion that Joy lovingly and movingly celebrates on its own quirky, irresistible terms.

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Joy
Through February 20
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
The Producers Club, 358 West 44th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101