The New Century

Andrea Braun –, May 12, 2012

Interview: Paul Rudnick Pt. 1

I talked to Paul Rudnick on the eve of Max and Louie Productions presentation of his play The New Century, which consists of three one-act vignettes and a fourth, titled “The New Century” which ties all the characters together. It is hugely entertaining, but is also a profound statement on gay life from the perspectives of a PFLAG mother, a flamboyant cable TV talk show host, and a mother who has learned to deal with grief through crafts. Rudnick uses comedy to convey his observations on art and life.

A New Jersey native, Rudnick is a longtime New Yorker who works in theatre, film and print media. He publishes under the pseudonym “Libby Gelman-Waxner,” a parody of movie critics (and Jewish mothers), currently appearing in Entertainment Weekly after a long run in the late Premiere magazine. His work also appears in The New Yorker, and he is widely regarded as one of America’s preeminent humorists. But his main job is writing plays and screenplays, and The New Century follows such pieces as his first stage hit, I Hate Hamlet and original scripts for the films Jeffrey, In and Out, and Addams Family Values. He’s as much fun to talk to as he is to read because he’s one of those rare people who has the ability to “think funny.” Our talk covered a lot of ground, so this interview will run in two parts.

Andrea Braun (AB): First, I am a big fan of your work, and just last night, I discovered I Shudder (And Other Reactions to Life, Death and New Jersey. Part memoir, part fantasy [with another alter ego, Mr. Elyot Vionnet, 63, who believes good manners are to die for—literally], published in 2009, the book has garnered you comparisons to David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs (though I’d add “without their bitterness” to the comparison). I only had a chance to skim it, but I wanted you to know that I’m trying to do my homework.

Paul Rudnick (PR): Ah, well, thank you and yes (laughs).

AB: I know more about your background than I did before, but could we talk about it for our readers?

PR: Sure, whatever you’d like. I grew up in Piscataway, New Jersey [I had to ask him to spell the name, which came as no surprise], a small suburb. They do tend to name the towns after the Native-American tribes who settled the area. It was pretty tiny. When I was growing up, people who were snobby said they were from Princeton, which was about 45 minutes away. But I thought Piscataway was fine. It was one of those towns that just sort of gradually ‘accumulated’ more than being planned in any way. I grew up in a tract house a couple of blocks from a lake, and it was a nice way to grow up in a place, as suburbs are, that is kind of designed for raising children.

I went to college in the Northeast as well [Yale]. One of the biggest advantages is that you’re able to get to New York for theatre, and there’s a lot of local theatre, as well, which I was very grateful for. And there’s a sense of neighborhood both places [Piscataway and New Haven]. I think I might have felt isolated at that time in other parts of the country. You could hop on a train or a bus and get just about anywhere. And when I was a kid, my parents were great. They were always taking my brother and me into the city to see Broadway shows, the circus, museums—all sorts of cultural things—that I so much looked forward to. My family, especially her mother and her two sisters [Aunt Lil and Aunt Hil] were very powerful women and they taught me everything, especially outlet shopping. I loved them and being an audience for them very much. Most of all I learned that if you could find a joke, make a wisecrack, it could help you get through pretty much any situation, any obstacle. You could own it, and you won’t be defeated if you can keep your sense of humor.

[AB Note: You, Dear Readers, should know that I’m surprised I’m able to get this down coherently because I laughed all the way through the interview. Rudnick is the master of the unexpected comic twist in a statement, just see immediately above about shopping with Mom and the aunties.]

AB: It’s always difficult to ask a humorist, “Why are you funny?” But we can look at the beginnings. Were your parents your first audience?

PR: They were, and they were both funny themselves. It wasn’t so much that I put on a show for them, but at the dinner table, in the back yard, on a long car trip, there was always joking around, and the sense that we were just “that kind of family.” And using humor as a kind of ‘balance wheel’ in Jewish families and in gay life is a tradition to help you get along that much better. When I began to write, I thought what a wonderful tool to have, to be able to hold a comic lens up to life. And the other thing I selfishly liked about it is that you get a sense of audience response. If you can actually get strangers to laugh with a little bit of shock involved? That was such a high for me.

If you put something up on a stage, the audience and performers become a kind of community, even family, and I think only comedy can offer that. Tragedy has its place in the world, and it should, but you don’t get that same kind of ‘blast’ from it, and I love being a part of it. That’s one big reason I think live theatre will never die, no matter how often its end is predicted, because there is nothing like being in at a live show when the comedy is really working, when it’s cooking, and the audience is just laughing its head off and that shoots the performers even higher. Then you can tell that the writing is working. It’s just a wonderful machine at those moments. Also, audiences come to a comedy with the best possible expectations. They want to laugh. They want to be on your side. During the first few minutes, you can tell that the audience is willing to respond. They don’t just sit there going, ‘Okay, show me whatcha got.’ That sense of anticipation and excitement is only possible in live theatre. Sure, people can watch a movie in a theater or at home, but they’re not as invested in that experience.

I truly believe people who go to the theatre—well, first of all, they’re my very favorite people—but also, they’re kind of hooked. They love that experience, being at a show that’s working, being tickled, delighted, and entertained. It’s the BEST sort of conspiracy.

AB: I agree. Did you ever perform?

PR: Not really. I acted in college, but I have too much respect for the craft to do it. When I’m in the theatre and I see what real actors can do, I am in such awe. I hope I’m good enough to work with them on my scripts, but there is nothing as gratifying as watching a great comic performer, no matter what the material. It’s the greatest gift of all, I think, and when I find somebody who can make my work even better, I am just SO grateful.

AB: Are you willing to name any names?

PR: It’s funny, there are people whose names are known around the country or even internationally—Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Christina Ricci (who was in the Addams Family movies), Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack who were in In and Out and Joan was also in Addams Family Values and she’s just priceless. There are also those who people might recognize from a lot of their appearances on TV and in film; for example, Harriet Harris [possibly best known as Frasier Crane’s pushy agent on “Frasier”]—I just worship her—and Linda Lavin [star of the classic TV series “Alice”] who was in the original production of The New Century at Lincoln Center [2008, playing Helene Nadler, the part Stellie Siteman will play here]. She’s just the BEST, and it’s such a privilege to watch her work. These are my kind of people.

AB: You certainly gave her [Lavin] a great character.

PR: Believe me, she made the most of it. She told me that at the time, she wasn’t particularly interested in doing theatre, but when she read it, she just thought ‘I have to do this. I can’t let anybody else get their hands on this,’ which is what every [playwright] dreams of hearing. Watching her explore this piece was so wonderful, and I get equally excited watching other actors go through the process of making the most out of a comic opportunity.

AB: You wrote about a family with four gay children [in I Shudder]. Did you base the character of Helene on that mom?

PR: Well, I did think they’d really been through [the mill]. I mean you have one gay kid, fine, you love him or her, but when four of them come out to you one at a time. . . no matter how loving and compassionate you are, there has to be a part of you that wonders, ‘My god, what breakfast cereals did I give them?’ So that was a partial inspiration, and beyond that, I remember when I was growing up, my mom had a friend who was a lesbian. Mom adored her and was completely great about Sue being lesbian, but she was worried, as only a Jewish mom can be, about Sue’s future security. And she asked me, “Couldn’t Sue be a lesbian and still marry a rich man?” It was completely insane, but at the same time, I knew what she meant, and it came completely from a place of love and concern and . . . lunacy.

And it’s my mom’s kind of attitude that inspired the play: A mom who both loves her family but keeps being surprised by them, so that was what kicked off “Pride and Joy” [the first one act in The New Century]. I thought it would be interesting to look at the perspective of the mother and father, not the gay kids themselves. What I love about Helene most is that she wants, she NEEDS, to prove to the audience and to herself that she is the most loving mother of all time, and to say to anyone else, ‘You think YOU’VE got challenges. Look at me!’

AB: One of the things I think the play does so well is that I think that underneath the comedy in all the parts of The New Century, there is truth. I talked to [Peggy Billo] about the play and her role as ‘Barbara Ellen’ in “Crafty” [the third one-act] and I see her as the real heart of the piece.

PR: Yes, I’m glad you said that. Because without that element, the pieces would just be joke books. And Barbara Ellen is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written. I agree with her about everything! She is a woman from the Midwest, a homemaker and a craftsperson, and I never wanted to condescend to her or pigeonhole her in any way because I think sometimes New York writers can get incredibly snobby and full of themselves. I thought, ‘No! A woman who loves home shopping and creates sock monkeys is every bit as much of an artist as someone in a loft in SoHo because her emotions are as genuine as theirs, if not more so.’ Barbara Ellen has a very sane perspective on life, and she’s had plenty of challenges too, including a child who died. I so admire the way she’s kept herself sane, and kept from becoming chronically depressed, no matter how much that response may be justified. I love her and I love watching actresses who understand that character from inside, who know why she’s funny, but also why she’s smart.

AB: I can assure you the woman who is playing the part gets her and will do a terrific job.

PR: Oh, good.

AB: What intrigued me about that vignette also was I think it’s the first time I understood the spirit and meaning of “The Gates,” [Christo’s installation of bright saffron banners in New York’s Central Park in Feb., 2005 ]. Barbara Ellen’s encounter with the woman in the park who had also suffered a loss she could not control made me get what healing art is all about.

PR: Great! As I walked through the park looking at the installation myself, I was thinking, ‘How is it that people all over the world are having such a strong connection to this event, other than just seeing orange shower curtains?’ That sense is very much what I was after in the Barbara Ellen monologue. I was very much inspired by all that beautiful fabric.

AB: You write about a flamboyant man you know whom you call ‘Peter’ in I Shudder, and I was wondering if he was an inspiration for Mr. Charles [the gayest man on the planet who will be played by Alan Knoll in the second one-act, “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach”]?

PR: Somewhat. I think everybody should meet someone at some time in their lives who is just completely himself/herself, so that if you put them down in New York City, St. Paul, anywhere, they are themselves. Even sometimes the most prejudiced people fall in love with them. They’re irresistible and there’s such an honesty to them that becomes very persuasive. Peter and Mr. Charles are just naturally that way. I remember seeing pictures of Peter as a five-year-old. He was already wearing scarves and towels for turbans—he was always Peter—and I think it’s something well worth celebrating. But I also think that in our very politically correct times, a character like that can make people a little nervous and I wanted to kind of explode that and say, ‘Look, this guy is wonderful, and don’t worry about it.’

AB: Peggy [Billo] and I talked about how all three characters are parents, whether in fact or spirit.

PR: Oh, absolutely. I think a kid would be so lucky to have a Mr. Charles in their life or grow up to be Mr. Charles. At the end of the play, when all these characters end up in the same room, they have a surprising amount in common. And that was one of my goals: to see what would happen if you put these very disparate personalities together. What would they have in common? How would they see each other? Would they kind of fall in love with each other? And that became very exciting. I could feel it in the theatre as the audience watched that last scene. They were a little unsure, a little wary, but then there was such delight in watching the friendships form and seeing why these characters had more similarities than differences than they [the characters] or the audience would have ever thought.

AB: I think that’s another good part of the message. We all do have more in common than we think; it just requires a situation that will bring it out in us.

PR: Oh, absolutely! It seems to happen much more when people have to pull together, for example, when they’re facing illness, a tsunami or hurricane, or an economic downturn, that sometimes makes people a lot more generous and grounded. They realize that we are all in this together, and we’d better be able to laugh at ourselves or we won’t be able to help each other, and we’ll be in much bigger trouble. This is a theme in my work I always try to explore and ‘celebrate to see where those connections might spark.