Paul Rudnick's The New Century, making its West Coast premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, is brought to you courtesy of Steamworks. That's pretty remarkable, considering that I've never associated a bathhouse with anything other than poppers and despair.
The play is hilarious — a fact that won't surprise anyone who knows Rudnick's work. It's also hugely inconsistent, which won't surprise anyone either. He has always had a great talent for deadly one-liners, but he's never been the go-to guy for sustained, compelling narrative.
The unapologetically gay playwright first made a name for himself in the early '90s, when his plays I Hate Hamlet and Jeffrey created minor sensations in New York City. Jeffrey was particularly remarkable because it gave audiences the chance to laugh about HIV when HIV was still a few years away from being a relatively manageable disease.
Rudnick's last modest success on the New York stage was 1998's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, a frothy rewrite of the Book of Genesis. Since then, he has written a few tepidly reviewed plays and a fair number of screenplays, including a string of high-profile failures (namely the 2000 Bette Midler debacle Isn't She Great, the 2003 Lisa Kudrow debacle Marci X, and the 2004 Nicole Kidman debacle The Stepford Wives).
It's no wonder, then, that The New Century feels like a product of the old century — you can't really blame Rudnick for wanting to return to 1993. Back then, his brand of supergay theater felt defiant. Now it just feels like an exercise in man-on-man nostalgia.
At least he hasn't lost his ability to write quotable epigrams and outrageous punch lines. In this collection of four short plays — originally produced at Lincoln Center in 2008 — we first meet Helene Nadler (Marie O'Donnell), president of the Massapequa chapter of the Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned, and Others (P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C. and O. for short). She describes herself as "the most loving mother of all time," and for good reason: She boasts a lesbian daughter, a transgendered son who's dating a lesbian, and a gay son who is proudly into bondage and scat. (She tells the latter, "In this house, we use the toilet, not a friend from Tribeca.") This is the sharpest segment in the play, and O'Donnell delivers the evening's most satisfying performance — she can't bring much freshness to the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother, but at least she has a wicked sense of timing.
Next up is Mr. Charles (the ebullient Patrick Michael Dukeman), a Paul Lynde knockoff spending his time in Palm Beach after a forcible exile from Manhattan. "I was asked to leave New York," he explains. "There was a vote." Describing himself as "the gayest man in the universe," fluent in "Shebonics," he bides his time by staring at his houseboy, Shane (Seth Michael Anderson), while writing gay-themed picture books for children. (Works in progress include Uncle Patrick Has a Beautiful Apartment and Aunt Kathy's Large Friend.) Mr. Charles is the victim of the forces of assimilation, pushed out of the urban ghetto by gays bent on achieving normalcy and acceptance. "No one wants to be truly gay anymore," he says. "It's passé." I'm a total sucker for pre-Stonewall gay culture, so I understand Mr. Charles' yearning for a time when queens were queens and guys worshipped Judy Garland rather than Lady Gaga. The problem is that Rudnick's character development remains resolutely superficial, so we're left with nothing but a familiar stereotype telling new jokes on well-worn themes.
The third piece moves away from the playwright's Greater New York comfort zone and into the Midwest, where a kindly gal named Barbara Ellen Diggs (Deborah Rucker) runs a booth at the Decatur Craft Fair. "Crafts inspire me to create something worth dusting," she tells us. By far the most sentimental piece of the lot, this segment relates the story of her son, Hank, a victim of the AIDS epidemic. Despite a few jarring shifts in tone, the piece works on the most fundamental level — I cried like a friggin' baby.
That brings us to intermission, and take it from me: This is the time to make a break for the exits. In the show's fourth and final piece, the characters from the first three plays meet in a New York maternity ward. The result feels weirdly strained, a tacked-on ending intended to create the illusion of a full evening. That's a shame, because those pieces are entertaining enough to stand on their own. By insisting on an awkward and artificial conclusion, Rudnick inadvertently sends the audience out the door with a distinct sense of inconclusiveness.
It doesn't help that the play's finale is a random, glitzed-out disco number. By that point, The New Century feels a little desperate, and I don't understand where the desperation comes from. The first half of the play offers no new ideas, but considered purely on a line-by-line basis, it's funnier than almost anything I've seen all year. The second half, however, forces the characters into a contrived setting that's intended to be spontaneous and fun, but it's really just a depressing search for anything resembling a climax. If that's what you're looking for, then I have a recommendation for you: Skip the play and go straight to the bathhouse.