Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Having a Gay Old Time

The New Century
By Paul Rudnick
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Starring Peter Bartlett, Mike Doyle, Jayne Houdyshell, Linda Lavin, Christy Pusz

Performances from March 20 through June 8, 2008
Mitzi Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street

Peter Bartlett
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Paul Rudnick’s most recent play, Regrets Only, took a one-note situation -- gay men and women go on strike to show their importance -- and spun comic gold from it, making pithy points about our still-homophobic society. But with The New Century, Rudnick has regressed. Revisiting clich├ęd tropes about gay life, he doesn’t so much illuminate them as simply trot them out for one more look.

The New Century comprises four short plays: three (mostly) monologues followed by the title piece, which brings the trio from the others together. “Pride and Joy” introduces Helene, a Massapequa mother of three who explains that her daughter is a lesbian, her eldest son has had a sex change operation and is now also a lesbian, and her youngest son is gay and into bondage, S&M, and scatological sex.

“Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach” presents the most flamboyant queen this side of Rip Taylor (or Paul Lynde, who is mentioned in passing). Hounded out of Manhattan by younger gays who are embarrassed by his limp-wristed antics, Mr. Charles hosts a late-night cable show in which he parades his latest boy-toy, Shane, in various outfits while answering mail from viewers.

In “Crafty,” we meet Barbara Ellen, a Decatur, Illinois housewife. She discusses her love for homemade things and her gay son, who moved to Manhattan before succumbing to AIDS. Her knack for knitting leads her to memorialize her son by making a patch for the AIDS quilt that’s laid out on The Mall in Washington, D.C.

In the final piece, “The New Century,” these people meet in a most unlikely setting: a Manhattan hospital maternity ward, where Helene has just become a grandmother to her lesbian daughter and partner’s baby. Also on hand for this fey denouement is Joann, a young mother whom Mr. Charles had brought onto his show to throw a wrench into the “nature or nature” question concerning her own newborn’s sexual orientation.

There are scattered moments in The New Century when we catch glimpses of Rudnick’s ability to string one-liners into a coherent comic character -- notably in the opening monologue, as Helene tells why she is the most loving mother of all time. Of course, Linda Lavin’s split-second comic timing and knack for broad acting that stops short of mugging helps immensely, as does director Nicholas Martin’s smart pacing. Peter Bartlett’s continuous camping as Mr. Charles wears thin quickly, and though Houdyshell brings nicely turned sentiment to “Crafty,” she is defeated by Rudnick’s surprising sloppiness, switching clumsily between jokes about Midwestern housewives and attempts at seriousness and symbolism that include mentions of 9/11, The Gates installation in Central Park, and the AIDS quilt.

It’s in the last sequence, however, that Rudnick completely loses it. Desperately searching for an ending, he has his characters meet absurdly cute in that maternity ward, where pronouncements about the “new century” are given to newborns on the other side of the glass. Feeble jokes about the Century 21 store near Ground Zero and a final dance are included in this failed try for a Grand Statement.

Surprisingly, Rudnick even fails to get much mileage out of political humor; for example, Mr. Charles’ Vietnam-era fantasy of John McCain in a barracks shower goes nowhere. The playwright still has his comedic sense, evident as the characters toss off uproarious one-liners about Will and Grace, Muslim terrorists, and the meaning of the old Indian word “Massapequa.” But he can’t shape this quartet of flimsy sketches into a meaningful social satire.

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