The New Century

Newspaper Review

Ben Brantley – The New York Times, April 15, 2008

The one-liners fly like rockets in “The New Century”, the rollicking bill of short plays by Paul Rudnick that opened on Monday night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. And more often than not, they hit their targets smoking. If Leno and Letterman regularly scored this ratio of hits to quips, much of America would be hospitalized with late-night laughter burn.

The question arises, as it often does with Mr. Rudnick, as to whether a fat column of great one-liners adds up to more than the sum of its jokes. After all, three-quarters of “The New Century” is monologues, two of which have been staged in New York before. On the surface these tales of gay men and the women who love them are not so very different from stand-up routines or the inspired in-print musings that used to run in Premiere magazine by the matron-cum-movie critic Libby Gelman-Wexner, Mr. Rudnick’s alter ego.

What’s more, the people portrayed by the unmatchable team of Linda Lavin, Peter Bartlett and Jayne Houdyshell are — let’s be honest — flaming clichés. “Let us not resort to easy stereotypes,” says Mr. Bartlett’s character in the show’s second vignette, “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach.”

Need I say that he’s kidding? A pastel-wearing, wrist-flopping, voice-curling fellow who has been exiled from New York City for being “too gay,” Mr. Charles just adores stereotypes, especially the one he fits into. So in their different ways do Helene Nadler (Ms. Lavin), a Ralph Lauren-worshiping Jewish mother (of three sexual frontier-crossers) from Long Island, and Barbara Ellen Diggs (Ms. Houdyshell), a home-crafts fanatic from Decatur, Ill. So, of course, does Mr. Rudnick.

For this playwright — the author of “Jeffrey,” the break-through comedy about love in the times of AIDS (1993), and “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” (1998), which rewrote Genesis as the story of Adam and Steve — stereotypes are meant to be worn extra-large, preferably in neon brights. Building on time-honored traditions within gay and Jewish humor, Mr. Rudnick turns stereotypes into bullet-deflecting armor and jokes into an inexhaustible supply of ammunition.

As is made clear by “The New Century,” directed with precision timing by Nicholas Martin, Mr. Rudnick’s insistence on staying determinedly on the surface does not mean that he’s not aware of the darkness beneath. Frivolity for his characters is a solid existential choice in a threatening universe. It’s Absurdism lite, a sensibility that is universally accessible.

When Barbara Ellen pauses to explain why she thought the World Trade Center had been attacked on 9/11 by people in cheap cotton fabric (she heard “Muslim terrorists” as “muslin terrorists”), she’s reminding us of how distracting silliness will raise its inappropriate head during the direst crises. You might as well embrace it. (The play’s title, by the way, refers to Century 21, the discount designer clothing store across the street from the World Trade Center site.)

The depths in Mr. Rudnick’s superficiality are what allows performers as skilled as Mr. Bartlett, Ms. Houdyshell and Ms. Lavin to draw affecting portraits out of scripts that on paper read as line-ups of great jokes, followed by abrupt U-turns into sentimentality. Fluidity of tone and plot has never been Mr. Rudnick’s strong suit. It’s telling that in “The New Century,” the monologues, especially the first two, are far stronger than the last vignette, which brings the three main characters together in a hospital maternity ward.

Ms. Lavin’s Helene Nadler, who opens the evening with “Pride and Joy,” is probably the most intricately drawn. (The piece was previously staged at the TriBeCa Theater Festival in 2004.) The complaining, consumerist, cultured Jewish woman of a certain age has been portrayed before by Mr. Rudnick (in the novel “I’ll Take It”) and Ms. Lavin (in Charles Busch’s “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” and Wendy Wasserstein’s “Sisters Rosensweig”).

But as Helene breezily describes being the mother of children who turned out to be, variously, a lesbian, a transsexual and a leather fetishist, Ms. Lavin freshly illuminates the seriousness of an archetype’s flippancy as a survival tool. Her Helene is overwhelmed and overwhelming, funny and sad, with the full courage of her contradictions.

Yes, what she says in a speech to the Massapequa chapter of “Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others” is often hilarious. (Of the television show “Will & Grace,” she says, “It was like if Pottery Barn sold people.”) But she’s also persuasive in the conclusion that she draws, with resignation and compassion, about why her children behave as they do.

“Mr. Charles” has become something of a recital piece for Mr. Bartlett, who performed it, among other places, for the Ensemble Studio Theater in 1998. But he continues to bring bite and freshness to the role of a Florida cable show host who has never fallen out of love with the idea of being gay in its pre-Stonewall, Cinerama-size, Technicolor sense. His history of gay theater in 60 seconds remains a mini masterpiece. He also happens to own my favorite joke of the evening — about how you can tell if the man sitting next to you is gay. (“He’s saving his Playbill. And he’s awake.”)

If Mr. Rudnick gives the impression of knowing Mr. Charles and Helene inside-out, he’s on shakier ground with Barbara Ellen, a crafts-crazy homebody whose son died of AIDS. The litany of her wacky, tacky projects — from toilet-paper-roll cases to cakes decorated like Leonardo’s “Last Supper” — can feel strained. It’s Mr. Rudnick’s imposed hyperbole that’s operating here, not (as with Helene and Mr. Charles) the character’s own. And in hands less skilled than Ms. Houdyshell’s, Barbara Ellen could come across as more target than sharpshooter.

But this first-rate, late-blooming actress, of “Well” and “The Receptionist,” brings a redeeming dryness to a potentially sticky part. And she arrives with impeccable style to what might well be the show’s mantra: “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore. But I do believe in cute.” As Ms. Houdyshell pronounces them, they are noble words to live by.

The New Century
Plays by Paul Rudnick; directed by Nicholas Martin; sets by Allen Moyer; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Kenneth Posner; music and sound by Mark Bennett; stage manager, Stephen M. Kaus. Presented by the Lincoln Center Theater under the direction of André Bishop and Bernard Gersten. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center; (212) 239-6200. Through June 15. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

With: Peter Bartlett (Mr. Charles), Mike Doyle (David Nadler/Shane), Jayne Houdyshell (Barbara Ellen Diggs), Linda Lavin (Helene Nadler), Christy Pusz (Joann Milderry) and Jordan Dean (Announcer).