Saturday, January 24, 2009

Speakeasy Stage's "The New Century"

The best thing about Speakeasy's latest Off-Broadway revival of Paul Rudnick's tired and sagging comedy can be summed up in two words: Paula Plum. Paula Plum is to the Boston theatre scene what Paul Revere is to the Freedom Trail. Unlike the over-glorified Revere, Plum lives up to her legend in this recent production as the only actress who can make Rudnick's sophomoric, Saturday-Night-Live skit turned ninety-minute play work. And she does so with aplomb.

What Ms. Plum understands - that the rest of the cast and direction lack - is the ability to laugh at one's self, to not take Rudnick's one-liners and punny humour too seriously. In traditional, well-written comedies, the actor must play the comedy seriously in order for it to work. But in Rudnick's case, his sitcom-brand of laugh-track humor requires an actor who can laugh at themselves being laughed at and even laugh when the audience doesn't. Ms. Plum's introductory monologue as the quintessential New York, Jewish (or, nyewish, as I recently coined the term) mother is the only enjoyable ten minutes of an otherwise tired and tepid ninety minutes. The reason it works is because she knows it's a bad play, but has fun playing.

The play has an interesting structure consisting of three lengthy monologues by seemingly disparate characters who all converge in the final scene. It's not original, but at least it's interesting. We start with the high point: Ms. Plum's aforementioned role, Helene, who is competing for the title of best nyewish mother proven by the fact that she is open and accepting of her daughter's lesbianism, her son-turned-daughter's transgender identification, and her bubbala's identity as BDSM scatologist. If you're not sure what any of these words mean, Mr. Rudnick's overly expository writing, like Mother Ignatius, will explain it all for you.

The next monologue is titled "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach" and introduces a flaming stereotype of a queen who was 2 Gay for New York. A program note explains that Rudnick wrote this monologue as a reaction to a movement from "ten years ago" that sought to encourage LGBTQ persons that they were just like everyone else. Indeed, this monologue might have felt new and engaging ten years ago, but in this "new century" and in the hands of the robotic and unengaging Robert Saoud, it merely runs long and flat. There are witty jokes scattered throughout the monologue; the differentiation between straight men and gay men at the theatre being one of my favorites. However, Mr. Saoud tends to depend too heavily upon the material to carry him through, which is theatre built on sandy ground. Rudnick must have understood the deficiencies in this portion of the script and, therefore, added a hunky sidekick who appears in virtually every masquerade of gay fantasy (superhero, butler, military, jock, stripper, twink) including full-frontal nudity. The nubile Bud Weber as Shane, Mr. Charles' sidekick, is serviceable as scenery, if only he didn't need to act.

The final monologue introduces us to Barbara Ellen Diggs, a Midwestern arts and crafts aficionado who has devoted her life to all things brick-a-bracked, decoupaged, crocheted, scrapbooked, or appliqued. The concept is cute for five minutes, but a fifteen minute monologue ensues incorporating everything from AIDS, 9/11, Cristo's "The Gates", to designing couture for cats. Ironically, the theme of this monologue is to spoof lower culture in American society, yet Rudnick's writing is as cheap as a Hallmark card. In this monologue, he attempts to pull the sympathy vote with Barbara Ellen Diggs' description of her son dying from AIDS. Kerry Dowling definitely pulls at your heartstrings with her sincerity during the sentimental moments, but with such a shabby concept upon which to lay great emotion, it merely feels as cheap as the mocking reference to Hummel figurines. Rudnick doesn't quite grasp his device of mocking lower culture while writing for that very culture, a theme upon which Moliere based his entire career.

The final scene places all the aforementioned characters in a hospital maternity ward. Helene is there to visit her lesbian daughter's new-born, Mr. Charles is there to convert the newbies into fabulosity, and Barbara Ellen is there because she bruised her hip chasing after her cat who escaped from the fashion show. Shane appears to provide a utopian vision of the future which he sees in Century 21, a bargain-basement designer discount store across the street from Ground Zero. Attempting to force-feed a message about the hope for a new generation, Rudnick only succeeds in delivering a hasty ending to an otherwise feeble plot. Rudnick certainly peaked in the early 90s with his then-brave attempt at humorizing AIDS in Jeffrey. However, this production proves that Rudnick's sense of humor is as tired and as cheap as a whore's used mattress. If one gleans anything from this production, it's that the enjoyment level of gay ghetto theatre is in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed before the performance as the drunk group behind me laughed hysterically throughout the performance. Apparently, Rudnick has outlived his welcome on the stage; however, I'm sure Law and Order would be more than happy to help him pay his rent.

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