The New Century

Judith Newmark –, May 12, 2012

Writer Paul Rudnick keeps audiences laughing

Paul Rudnick isn’t laughing at his characters. He’s laughing with them.

We in his audience have to make up our minds, of course. But one way or the other, the odds are good we’ll be laughing.

Rudnick, 54, who acknowledges that he has always been funny, has been professionally funny for decades. He has written funny books (“I’ll Take It“, “I Shudder: And Other Reactions to Life, Death and New Jersey“), funny articles (in The New Yorker and, as alter-ego Libby Gelman-Waxner, in Entertainment Weekly) and funny movies (“Addams Family Values“, “In & Out“).

He also has written, and received some nice awards for, many funny plays (“Regrets Only“, “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told“, “Jeffrey“, “I Hate Hamlet“). The most recent of these, “The New Century“, makes its St. Louis debut this weekend at Max & Louie Productions.

In fact, most of Rudnick’s plays have been produced here, a detail that delights their author. He knows what some people say, that his work is like a fine wine. It’s too gay, too Jewish, “too New York” to travel well.

Hah!, Rudnick snorts. “It is very gratifying when my plays live elsewhere,” he said. “People thought that ‘Jeffrey‘ (a romantic comedy involving the AIDS epidemic) would do great here in New York and in San Francisco, but nowhere else. But it’s played all over the country, all over the world. They made it a movie! Audiences are more adventurous than they get credit for being.”

From the right-wing socialites who discover they can’t stage a proper wedding without a vast gay support team in “Regrets Only” to the profoundly misguided sweethearts played by Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack in “In & Out” Rudnick is known for creating characters who can boast an almost triumphant lack of insight.

That’s exactly what he loves about them. More a series of character sketches than a full story, “The New Century” introduces us to several of these blissfully unenlightened men and women. But when Rudnick talks about them, his voice warms with affection, even admiration. He is happy to go into specifics.

Mr. Charles, currently of Palm Beach (played in the Max & Louie production by Alan Knoll), has been banished from New York for being “too gay.” He is, no question, a stereotype, from his pastel ensemble to his meltingly limp wrists. But Rudnick invented him in tribute to “any number of wonderful people. Mr. Charles is too flamboyant and theatrical to be politically correct nowadays. He’s considered an embarrassment.

“But he is too wonderful a creation to exile — he is his own creation! He is part of a great gay tradition that deserves to be celebrated.” Then there’s Helene Nadler (Stellie Siteman), mother of a lesbian, a transsexual and a leather fetishist. Helene is in large part a comic but loving tribute to Rudnick’s late mother, whom he adored.

“My mother was very supportive and very proud of me,” he says. “Of course, she was also a little cuckoo. She had a good friend, Sue, who was a lesbian. That was no problem, that was fine. But she worried about her future, too. My mother would say, it’s wonderful that Sue is a lesbian, but couldn’t she marry a rich man, too? And that was completely understandable, even if it was also completely insane. Contradiction did not trouble her.” Rudnick’s mother not only loved him but his partner of 19 years, a physician. (Yes, she was glad he was a doctor. She would have liked it even better if he were a Jewish doctor.)

But he’s sympathetic with what parents go through when their children come out, and his most sympathetic portrait may be of Barbara Ellen (Peggy Billo), a Decatur homemaker whose son died of AIDS.

Although Barbara Ellen sometimes feels down, she’s never out. She keeps herself going with crafts projects that range from the simple-minded to the simply hilarious. But Rudnick isn’t joking at her expense — just the opposite.

“People can be so snobbish about crafts, and that’s no good,” he said. “Whether you’re talking about Picasso or the person who makes giraffes out of pipe cleaners, it’s the same impulse, and I hate drawing a line between them.

“When Barbara Ellen makes her projects, she finds common ground with (avant-garde artist) Christo. The urge to make art is a means of survival for everybody, not just a privileged class. That privileged class is too protective of itself.

“The painting that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars is a masterpiece, and the picture of a wharf Barbara Ellen paints on a lobster pot is dreck? “Who says? I don’t want to exclude anybody from art. Or from comedy, either.”