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By Richard von Busack

The drop-dead hilarity of Jeffrey  begins early, with a scene I've longed to see ever since I sat through Philadelphia , which starred Antonio Banderas and Tom Hanks as live-in lovers whose romantic activity seemed limited to manly, affectionate little pats on the back. Jeffrey (Steven Weber) goes for a full-on kiss with another man. We cut immediately to two straight couples, watching the movie in a mall somewhere near you, who respond to the kiss with a fully outraged "EEEYYYUUWW!!!"

Jeffrey  is full of sketch comedy like that, but it's inordinately fine sketch comedy. Based on the noted play, it follows the travails of a hero who, out of terror of AIDS, has given up on all of this sex business. Like every other celibate in recorded history, his love life immediately blossoms.

Steve (Michael T. Weiss), whom Jeffrey meets at the gym, is very cute, very available and very HIV-positive. Jeffrey is fearful but has the example of his chum Sterling (Patrick Stewart), who is himself carrying on an affair with an HIV-positive man. If there were any one reason to see Jeffrey , it would be Stewart, who must have honed his sarcasm during all of those years he spent frowning at a blue-screen pretending it was a Romulan spaceship.

Stewart is funny , f in the grand tradition of the bitchery of such performers as Franklin Pangborn, Jonathan Harris and the late, great Gale Gordon. (Planning his own funeral, he anticipates dishery even there: "I want an open casket. Let them say it to my face.")

Even Stewart has to take a back seat to Sigourney Weaver, who has ten minutes of ballsy farce. As Debra Moorhouse, a "New Age Evangelist," Weaver works her seminar, using mock compassion to stroke a confession out of pigeons and then deriding them as wimps. After seeing Safe's cool assault on professional grief-wringing, it's a pleasure to witness the profession so broadly satirized. ("I don't know you," Moorhouse tells a visitor at her seminar. "Maybe you should  have low self-esteem.")

Paul Rudnick wrote and co-produced Jeffrey . Previously, he scripted Addams Family Values ; and you can easily see the hand that came up with all of Wednesday's quotable lines at work here. Rudnick is also responsible for the muted dishery in the "If You Ask Me" column by Libby Gelman-Waxner in Premiere .

Now, if you ask me, that column is aggravating, mostly because of the bland hunks Libby slavers over. Dennis Quaid indeed! To Rudnick's favor, I have to say that until he dropped the mask I never would have known Libby wasn't a woman.

Rudnick's certainly a wit, but Jeffrey  hasn't made a full translation to screen, under first-time director Christopher Ashley. At its best, the film's blackouts and frame-breaking sharpen the humor and make Jeffrey  a gay Annie Hall.  The show-stopping "but, seriously, folks" moments, however, haven't been filtered for the screen. In one scene describing first sex, and in another during which Jeffrey is roughed up by queer-bashers, the pathos is resistible.

Weber, who was in Single White Female , is personable, likable and often rather a blank. He's just not screen-sized somehow. In the company of people like Stewart and Weaver, all Weber can do is sit back and let them take over. He's a second banana in the lead, which is something else that works better on stage than it does in a movie.

The supporting cast is a delight. Both Nathan Lane as a desperately horny priest and Peter Bartlett as a seen-it-all casting director are notable. Weiss, as Steve, is ridiculously handsome in that way you associate with the leading man in a gay romance. Bryan Batt has a running gag as a goofy chorus boy gainfully employed in one of those from-here-to-eternity musicals (Cats , in this case).

Jeffrey  doesn't work every moment on screen, but many of the best comedies are kind of unkempt. It does help to consider the subject matter: In movies sympathetic to gays, as with dancing dogs, it's not how well the dog dances, it's that he dances at all. Here's a film bold enough to start out with the kiss, which should chase out the bigots. This kind of comedy is too good for them, anyway.

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