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First, a disclosure: No one, in fact, spends a night with Reg in My Night With Reg.

Or at least we don’t see it happen onstage—which immediately separates Kevin Elyot’s bittersweet meditation on sex and sensibility from most of the AIDS-era dramedies that tread the same prosperous-urban-gay-white-male turf. In three intermissionless scenes divided by two offstage encounters with the plague, Elyot wrestles with the idea that relationships survive despite a kind of inherent, inescapable toxicity, not because the individuals in them find some sort of soothing antidote in the catalog of their affections; he observes, sharply and rather sadly, that there are no perfect loves in an imperfect world.

A welcome return vehicle for the Actors’ Theatre of Washington after an 18-month hiatus, Reg is less self-lacerating than The Boys in the Band, but easily as honest and troubling; less loudly campy and obviously preachy than Party, though equally lighthearted at times; and less pretentious and baldly sentimental than Love! Valour! Compassion!, if oddly similar in mood, structure, and plot. It proves, with help from Jeff Keenan’s sure direction and a capable cast, that eschewing titillation and mawkish message-sending can actually pay off in this genre.

Granted, it’s a trifle formulaic; the outlines of the well-made play are more than a little obvious beneath the surface, though Tony Cisek’s comfortably solid set does a lot to pad that skeleton, and Keenan’s direction and Lynn Joslin’s moody lighting smooth scene transitions by working with, rather than trying to fight, the script’s inherent melodrama.

And granted, there’s that moment late in the evening when the Church Street Theater audience may gaze raptly, if it wishes, at the utterly unclothed and handsomely upholstered frame of a working-class youth (Jerry Richardson) who’s having a moonlight moment in a friend’s London garden. But even that interlude—the aftermath of a tryst that hasn’t turned out as hoped—is revealed to be as much about emotional nakedness as the physical kind. Which, come to think of it, is what authors always say stage nudity is meant to signify; the trouble is that they so rarely back up their claims with craft.

Call this play “Six Characters in Search of an Other”: Elyot’s half-dozen friends are looking for love, but in all kinds of wrong places. (Such a shocker, that, in an urban gay crowd.) Five of them have, after inspections of the most intimate kind, found something to admire in the always-offstage title character; the one who hasn’t sampled his charms is too busy nursing a hopeless lifelong passion for one of the others, who quite naturally hasn’t noticed.

Art expert Daniel (a boisterous David Bryan Jackson), Reg’s blissfully devoted lover, begins to suspect after a time that his partner has been having an affair. What Daniel never quite figures out is that the interloper is his own best friend, a dilettantish ex-rugby hero named John (Christopher Wilson, projecting an appropriately troubled air). What’s more, John thinks he’s found, for the first time in his emotionally arid life, a real connection with someone else.

When the play opens, both of these late-30-somethings have met for a flat-warming dinner with their advertising copywriter friend Guy, a flighty, spinsterish queen who’d be sad if he weren’t so sweet. If Daniel and John suffer from an embarrassment of affectional riches, Guy’s still single and looks likely to stay that way; the running joke is that everyone brings him those cooking-for-one books as hostess gifts. But he’s the play’s real center, the one everyone trusts, the one everyone likes if nobody quite loves. Steven Cupo, returning to work after a long recuperation from brain surgery, makes him a jumpy, tightly wound little man, laughable and lovable at once.

Quite naturally, John admits his involvement with Reg to Guy; so, eventually, do others in the play’s small circle—a pretentious and painfully boring git (Steven Edward Kirkpatrick) and his perpetually horny bus driver boyfriend (Ian LeValley). If Eric, the hunky young handyman/bartender who’s drifted into their lives, doesn’t have much to reveal, it’s only because he doesn’t realize he’s part of the not-so-exclusive Reg club.

But by the final fade-out, Guy, who has worshipped John since their school days and never acted on it, isn’t around to play confessor for the others anymore; Reg, the source and object of so much worry, has gone as well. Daniel and John are left to work out for themselves how much honesty is required amid the rubble, how to balance their emotional commitments to each other and to the man whose affections they shared.

Elyot raises questions about the nature of commitment and male sexuality in the plague era, but he refuses to offer hard-line answers. Sexual attraction gets confused, at the oddest times, with emotional need; these are men who, despite a measure of success in their personal and professional lives, haven’t quite settled on a definition of love.

Elyot’s idea, one suspects, is that they’re like a lot of us in that regard. He describes an emotional and epidemiological landscape fraught with peril, shows us the risks and rewards of exploring it, but is not interested in penciling in the safest route. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know the answers; maybe it’s because he wants us to find our own. Or maybe, as the play’s rather unsettled conclusion suggests, it’s because there are no answers that settle all the questions at once.CP