Thursday, January 29, 2009
Make 'em laugh
Paula Plum makes a point in The New Century.
With apologies to the Duchess of Windsor, playwright Paul Rudnick's mantra must be "You can never be too funny, or too thin." One need only look to his latest play, The New Century (now at SpeakEasy Stage through Feb.14) for the proof: this set of sketches on gay themes is often very funny, but it's got so little dramatic meat on its bones it's practically anorexic. And somehow you get the idea that this is the point; West Village mission accomplished!
But frankly, while Rudnick's one-liners do indeed fly, do they really fly "like rockets," as Ben Brantley would have us believe? Rockets are supposed to hit their targets, it seems to me, and they're also supposed to be at least a little pointed. No, Rudnick's zingers are more like - badminton birdies: they're designed not to puncture anything, and they're oh-so-easily batted back. Of course if a long game of shuttlecock played by gay stereotypes is your cup of tea, by all means enjoy! Me, I just kept waiting for a different kind of birdie - the inevitable gratuitous full-frontal nudity!
And honestly, the play could have been so much more; indeed, Rudnick studiously avoids the obvious conflicts built into his characters. He offers three monologues, by three different stereotypes: the long-suffering, liberal Jewish mother from Lawn Guyland with gay kids (a persona Rudnick's been riffing on for years); the datedly flamboyant Mr. Charles (at left), late of Manhattan, and now of late-night TV; and Barbara Ellen Diggs, a Midwestern "craftsperson" whose son died of AIDS and who now pours her grief into toaster cozies. All, you'll note, are survivors of humiliation, rejection, or disease; in short, of gayness, and - yes - its obvious downsides; but to admit this directly would be to admit the existence of the pink elephant in the room - much better to pretend it's not there!
So once this trio crosses paths in a wobbly, wandering last act, the playwright directs all their life lessons and collective wisdom toward - wait for it - 9/11, an event which may at this point be the last thing on the mind of his collective audience. Ever ponder what you can learn about terrorism from a nice lady with a glue gun and a dead gay son? No, I haven't, either. But apparently it has something to do with shopping (isn't that what Dubya said, too?). Or maybe it's just about floating a feel-good gay-90's bubble over a rather large cultural hump.
But to me, that bubble burst long ago - like so many bubbles of late! Still, as my English teacher used to say, write what you know; and Rudnick certainly knows this schtick. He's in top form with Helene, the most loving mother in the universe (here sveltely impersonated by crack comedienne Paula Plum), who tells a sad tale of tolerance to the Massapequa Chapter of "P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C. & O." (that's "Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned, and Others"). Helene's three offspring have turned out to be 1) a lesbian (which was no surprise - "Helen Keller would have known you were a lesbian!" she tells her daughter); 2) a transsexual ("Who's the big girl who looks like Ronnie?" her husband asks), and 3) a scatologist (don't ask). Through these travails Helene loves and suffers and then loves some more, always with her hair extensions - and sense of humor - perfectly in place. It's a charming monologue, and Plum gives it impeccable attack and timing (and her white-on-white pantsuit is to die for).
Alas, funny as it is, the monologue doesn't actually go anywhere, and neither does the next, less funny one, about an aging queen booted out of Manhattan by the new gay assimilationists (who want to marry and serve in the army rather than do homage to Paul Lynde). Again, the skit could have possibilities, if Mr. Charles even for a moment took his eyes off the mirror and peered into his own soul; but fat fucking chance. Still, Robert Saoud nearly matches Plum in what quickly shapes up as a beat-for-beat comic-chops acting smackdown. Alas, the final talented contender for the title, Kerry A. Dowling, is saddled with the weakest comic material yet (although the back-story to her sketch leaves Mr. Charles's in the dust). Still, she does what she can with her allotted clichés, and at least lands some clever points about Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Gates" project not being so far from what she does with felt (and she's got the orange oven mitt to prove it).
But when these three lovable loons finally collide (in a maternity ward), if you thought there'd be fireworks (particularly when Mr. Charles tries to "turn" Helene's granddaughter gay - hasn't the poor woman had enough?), you thought wrong; because conflict could lead to d-r-a-m-a, and Mr. Rudnick is having none of that - he'd much rather sweetly preach than playwrite. Which is too bad, if only because he and SpeakEasy are essentially wasting the time of several of Boston's best comic actors - and designers (Cristina Todesco's set and Gail Astrid Buckley's costumes are like buttah). And here's hoping this will be the shallowest play SpeakEasy does for a while; yes, I know, vehicles like The History Boys aren't quite the kiddie pool, but they're hardly an adult swim either, and it's time for this talented troupe to demonstrate that they can do more than superficial uplift. Luckily the gritty Blackbird is next, followed by the gonzo Jerry Springer. And not a moment too soon.