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RANBERG'S 'PARTY' IS WELL WORTH CRASHING

Javier Bustillos, artistic director for Buffalo United Artists, is an inveterate seeker of plays for his busy acting space -- one seldom idle -- and when he finds a work he deems BUA-worthy, he is relentless in obtaining performance rights.

In out-of-the-way theaters, lofts and basements, Bustillos finds such plays, ponders the casting possibilities and begins to hit phones and the Internet.

Such a play is Chuck Ranberg's "End of the World Party," a funny, poignant play about seven gay men on their annual summer vacation on New York City's Fire Island. There are apparently many Fire Island gay communal-living comedies, but "Party" is different, says Bustillos.

Yes, it's catty and chatty and it has its share of stereotypical gay characters, but Ranberg -- a writer for television and a five-time Emmy Award winner for his work on "Frasier" -- allows each man some explanatory or confessional moments, so "Party" has peaks of group hilarity and valleys of individual introspection.

And in the sad searches for love in all the wrong places -- the nightly trips to the "meat market," for example -- and the worry of being homosexual in a time of HIV and AIDS, there are plenty of issues to get serious about.

Most of the guys are old friends and they're aging. When they're joined by two new, young boarders, fraternal balance is upset. Hunter, Roger, Will, Travis and Nick can talk of the "old days," pre-HIV, when there were parties of legend: Booze flowed, sex and drugs were plentiful, "husband" hunting not a problem.

The summer continues, tensions mount -- mostly over Nick's promiscuity, Hunter's drinking, Travis' grieving about a dead lover, Roger's concern about his biological clock and Will's obsession with his lymph nodes. In sage and ironic casting, Dr. Ross Hewitt, whose real-life day job specializes in gay/lesbian health issues, plays the hypochondriac.

Just when it looks like the group will scatter for next year -- after a disastrous end-of-the-season bash -- peace is restored. That is an important tenet about this play: Friends are family. Call the landlord. They'll be back.

Chris Kelly directs and it is his typical work: tight, disciplined, brisk and faultlessly cast. BUA regulars abound: Jimmy Janowski is the wise queen, Hunter, one-lining sardonically on everything and everyone as only Janowski can; Tim Finnegan is both foil and accomplice to Janowski, and he, too, is excellent as Roger. Ranberg's writing crackles and snaps, but falters once or twice -- as when young Phil, smitten with each man he meets, says to the audience, "I wish I could put a condom on my heart." No Emmy for that one.

"End of the World Party" is funny, thought provoking and nicely acted. As usual, Javier Bustillos continues to be a fine judge of plays and playwrights.

REVIEW

RATING: * * * 1/2

Comedy by Chuck Ranberg about seven gay men at "ill Repute" retreat on Fire Island.

Buffalo United Artists Production directed by Chris Kelly and Featuring Timothy Patrick Finnegan, Jimmy Janowski, Eric Rawski, Dave Haefner. Ross Hewitt, Matthew Crehan Higgins and Keith A. Wharton.

Continues through June 15 in Upstairs Cabaret, 884 Main St. 886-9239.

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