Paradise And The Plague

No more extraordinary theater work will appear this season than Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream. Now at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., it's a creation of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. If this sounds tres formidable, it's a Minneapolis-based company, founded in France in 1978 but now thoroughly American with a piquant French flavor. Their audacious idea was to produce an epic play based on the filming of Marcel Carne's 1945 "Children of Paradise," a movie as beloved in France as "Gone With The Wind" is here.

The film was made during the end of the Nazi occupation of France, and the three-hour play sets forth the complex pressures of this situation. It follows the celebrated Carne, his brilliant scriptwriter Jacques Prevert, their fabulous cast including Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty and Pierre Brasseur, as they work under the eyes of the Gestapo and the puppet Vichy government, who sniff around for "Jewish" influence and subversion in the film. We watch scenes of the movie being shot, we go behind the camera to follow the juicy personal relationships among these legendary artists. The real world, with its harsh realities, contrasts with the emerging world of the film-the tumultuous and romantic life of the theater in mid-19th-century Paris. The monumental movie somehow gets made, France is freed, collaborators are seized-including Arletty, who we've seen having an affair with a German officer.

In this play, the making of a great film reflects a great culture caught in a moral crisis. It's a huge idea carried out with surprisingly few wobbles. One problem is that the actors must play titanic figures like Barrault and Arletty. It's a daunting task that only a few meet, like Dominique Serrand (who also directed) and Vincent Gracieux, who capture the passion of Carne and Prevert. But it's the collective passion of the 21-actor ensemble that makes "Shooting a Dream" an unexpected, unique achievement.

Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey is also unexpected, a comedy about AIDS. Comedy? Why not? Aristophanes would probably have written one if AIDS had plagued ancient Greece. Rudnick is no Aristophanes, but he's a very funny guy (see box), a shrewd observer who insists on seeing gays as people rather than merely as victims and martyrs. His hero, Jeffrey (John Michael Higgins), is a struggling actor in New York who's so terrified of contracting AIDS that he decides to give up sex. Sweating off his libido at a gym, he meets Steve (Tom Hewitt), who's clearly Mr. Right. But Steve announces he's HIV-positive and Jeffrey just can't hack it.

Steve goes after Jeffrey like Cary Grant pursuing Irene Dunne in a '40s screwball comedy. The chase moves through the New York gay world in a barrage of hilarious scenes that are increasingly tinged with serious emotion. Jeffrey tries to jazz up his painful celibacy with the help of the Lower Manhattan Gentleman's Masturbating Society. Meditating in church, Jeffrey encounters a lubricious priest (Richard Poe) whose casuistical rationale for his aberrant lust is a side-splitting blend of Lenny Bruce and Thomas Aquinas. Finally, love conquers all: "AIDS," Rudnick says, "is the guest who won't leave ... but it's still our party."

Larry Kramer's AIDS plays are fired by a crusading anger. Rudnick may not cut as deep, but he arouses insight and compassion by making us laugh at the desperate absurdity that can bedevil the victims of this most surreal of plagues. "Jeffrey" is staged with flair and feeling at New York's WPA Theatre by Christopher Ashley, who last season mounted Anna Deavere Smith's brilliant one-woman show about the Crown Heights racial riots. The totally engaging cast includes Harriet Harris, who represents her gender in seven scintillating roles, including a socialite who throws AIDS-chic parties; the mother of a "transvestite lesbian son," and the lone female in the ranks of Sexual Compulsives Anonymous.