Charm in the theatre is a odd thing. It can appear out of thin air to transform a cute if otherwise irrelevant evening into a perfectly transparent window into the human soul, and it can dissipate just as quickly, leaving behind only teasing memories of a purer, more interesting world. It's the latter that's more the case with the re-opening of John Fisher's Joy at the Actors' Playhouse.
When it first played an ephemeral engagement at the Producers Club in February, Fisher's smile-provoking story about a handful of gay twentysomethings in mid-1990s San Francisco dripped with the sense of disparate, bickering members of an extended family coming together in near-perfect unison to create something very special. It was a production suffused with cleverness and youthful irreverence, most remarkable for the loving geniality and sense of humanity that in many ways outshone the play's simple romantic comedy leanings.
The opposite is now the case. Director Ben Rimalower has tightened the show, removing a minor supporting character and trimming large portions of the second act to present a play that's in every way clearer, more focused, and much funnier than what was at the Producers Club. But Joy now exists entirely in the twinkling eyes of its cast members as they mine all the humor possible from Fisher's gently intricate love-and-loss story without making the emotional connections that would elevate the show to the next, necessary level.
It is only in the performance of Christopher Sloan, one of two holdovers from the original company, that the play's heart and humor entirely coalesce. Playing Gabriel, an easygoing aspiring singer who consistently (and unintentionally) turns heads, Sloan has the gleaming, stage-wide smile and soft-edged, understated comic sense that make him perfect for portraying the sexual confliction and an unquenchable desire to be deeply loved that make Gabriel the play's most earthbound, realistic character.
That's vital, as Gabriel is the reason the show's central figure Paul (Paul Whitthorne) is spinning this story: The year Paul romanced Gabriel was the only time he's really known joy, "a state that transcends happiness." Sloan's patient, funny, yet firm portrayal makes it easy to see why that would be so for the harsh, confrontational Paul: Paul's given to throwing drag parties and then throwing tantrums when the guests don't dress appropriately, and his dissertation is all about the possibility of a homosexual Jesus Christ; he needs Gabriel to escort him away, however fleetingly, from anger and fear.
But as our escort and most frequent narrator, Whitthorne overshoots Paul's aggressive yet needy flamboyance and is frequently given to posing, throwing off gestures, and barking out commands that feel more studied than natural. This tends to shift dramatic weight - often dangerously so - onto the more balanced supporting performers; these include January LaVoy and Ryan Kelly as two commitment-challenged lesbians, Michael Busillo as a closet-case Navy reservist, and Ken Barnett as a piano-playing, ethics-averse ancient ethics professor. But in the shadow of Whitthorne's Paul, they also seem a bit too unreal.
Not that reality is really that much of a concern: In its general worldview, and the characters' humorous asides to the audience and the standards they break into (Sloan's crooning is especially effortless), the play has the giddy feel of a magical film musical from Hollywood's heyday. Wilson Chin's glinting, silhouetted San Francisco backdrop and Ben Stanton's playful lights keep romance buzzing in the air throughout, but they can't mask that the last crucial piece of what should be a heartwarming puzzle is missing.
How else to explain that the evening's only moment of emotional engagement not emanating from Sloan comes from Ben Curtis (yes, the "Dell dude"), the other original cast member? His presenting of a drooping sunflower to Barnett in a moment of quiet reconciliation elicits awws from the audience, and rightly so: The character has quietly changed from a surface-level surfer dude to someone who's come to understand - and wants to continue experiencing - the joys of love and companionship he's opened himself up to. That rates an aww or two in my book.
It's also what Joy is really about. When that doesn't come through from everyone, you're just left with a play that's rollingly funny, and at the performance I attended, the audience couldn't get enough of the wall-to-wall laughs Fisher and Rimalower have concocted. But that's just the outer layer. For Joy to work, move, and charm at its utmost, everyone needs to dig as deep as Sloan does and find the pulsing passion in the comedy that will inform their characters' lives as much as they inform ours in the real world. Otherwise, the play may have no trouble inspiring happiness, but - as here - it will never truly evoke joy.