Arts & Culture » Theater

Funny Isn't Everything: Paul Rudnick's New Century is too, too cute



Paul Rudnick — playwright, screenwriter, essayist — is a man with a mission. He advocates for a tolerant world where acceptance triumphs over fear. His scripts about gay life are infused with the kind of fiery passion that scorches the more overtly political writings of Arthur Miller. But whereas Miller's plays boil with anger, Rudnick is a self-proclaimed laugh whore. His barbs sting more gently. And amid his barrage of one-liners and bons mots, usually there's one standout monologue that strikes gold with viewers of all persuasions.

Rudnick's current offering, The New Century, which is being staged by Max & Louie Productions, doesn't settle for one hilarious monologue. The entire evening is mostly monologues. But even here there's still that one memorably outrageous Rudnick moment. It occurs during a late-night Florida cable TV show when the flamboyant Mr. Charles (Alan Knoll), who promotes himself as "the gayest man in the universe," delivers a riotous 60-second history of gay theater, composed of the pithiest lines from such diverse scripts as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tea and Sympathy and A Chorus Line. Nor does Mr. Charles limit his quotations to gay theater. His butch assistant (Josh Payne) is named Shane, presumably so his boss can imitate Brandon De Wilde in George Stevens' 1953 classic Western and cry out, "Shane, come back!" The only thing missing is the echo.

Before we get to watch Mr. Charles' television antics, Stellie Siteman opens the evening as Helene Nadler, a speaker at a Long Island chapter of Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others. (If you don't fit into at least one of those categories, Rudnick's humor might not be for you). Mama Nadler recounts the day her daughter finally came out. Mom was not surprised. "Helen Keller would know you were a lesbian," was her reply. Siteman takes one of her delicious pauses, then adds, "from the stubble." But that was only the first of many revelations in the Nadler home. Her elder son turned out to be a transsexual; her younger son is a leather fetishist.

Then there's Barbara Ellen Diggs (Peggy Billo), an artisan in Decatur, Illinois, whose son lived in lower Manhattan and died from AIDS. This might be the evening's most dicey material. Such overt sentiment is at odds with the exaggeration that has preceded it. But this softer material finds a sympathetic interpreter in Billo, who manifests a sweet empathy for Barbara Ellen's determined optimism in the face of numbing confusion.

Alas, the final scene comes close to sinking The New Century. (Although the play does indeed dissect the vagaries of life during the past decade, the actual title references a discount designer store across the street from Ground Zero.) In a display of brazen coincidence, Rudnick has all his characters meet in the maternity ward of a New York City hospital. There's nothing wrong with that; extremity — even extreme coincidence — is the norm in a Rudnick play. But after these characters come together, no one has anything of interest to say. The play eventually succumbs to a vapid cuteness.

On opening night there was a sense that only part of the problem could be blamed on Rudnick. This was a production in search of an audience. Director Ted Gregory is experienced at handling this kind of in-your-face comedy. He also brings out those occasional moments when a character's loneliness ever so briefly eludes the laughs and makes its presence felt. But the evening's tone could not be finalized until the viewers told the actors how far they were willing to share the journey into the perilous new century. The final connective that unites actor and audience remained elusive. Rudnick had made his pitch, but The New Century had not yet sealed the deal. 

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