The New Century
Judith Newmark – stltoday.com, May 14, 2012
Paul Rudnick’s engaging little comedy “The New Century” doesn’t really constitute a play. It’s three character sketches, casually knotted together with a lame conclusion. But under Ted Gregory’s direction, these vivid personalities are fun to hear.
As Helene Nadler, Stellie Siteman plays a familiar type of mature, cultured, Jewish woman. But in recent years, Helene’s open mind has been pried past the breaking point by her grown children, all settlers on the sexual frontier.
Helene is a loving mother no matter what — and is the first to tell you so! — but who could begrudge her the occasional barb? She describes the marriage of her daughter, a lesbian tennis pro, to a social worker as “the wedding of Dennis the Menace and Opie,” a line that benefits greatly from Siteman’s throaty delivery. Helene is not an original creation, not even in the Rudnick oeuvre. But in this outing, she accepts life’s new challenges with commendable, if unsurprising, aplomb.
Alan Knoll has lots of fun playing Mr. Charles, exiled from New York to Palm Beach for being “too gay.” With his lime-and-lavender wardrobe and extravagant gestures, Mr. Charles knows he’s passe, not only a cliché but an embarrassment to gay pride. Holding forth on his public-access TV show with a young dancer (Josh Payne) and a receptionist (Elizabeth Graveman) for courtiers, Mr. Charles is a creature of his own invention, and he, at least, is pleased with the result. Camping and reminiscing, Knoll never holds back (Mr. Charles wouldn’t) and his 60-second version of the history of gay theater is just brilliant.
Peggy Billo plays the most original character, Barbara Ellen Diggs. An Illinois homemaker who lost her son to AIDS, Barbara Ellen is a crafts nut. Dressed in a lavishly decorated vest and surrounded by a plethora of oddball creations (toaster tuxedos, anyone?), Barbara Ellen opens up to us as freely as Helene, revealing her children’s eccentricities, or Mr. Charles, reveling in his luxe tastes. Barbara Ellen knows she’s a small-town girl with all that implies. (Her son’s friends, who were wonderful to her when he was ill, told her she was “a hoot.” She explains: “That means I wear polyester without irony.”) When she finally came out of her grief, she did it by making her most beautiful crafts project ever, a square for her son in the AIDS quilt.
Billo’s touching performance, a little understated compared with those from Siteman and Knoll, makes Rudman’s real point: nobody is ‘safe” from the assaults of modern life. In her love of crafts also holds out the possibility of real self-defense, through creativity. Make something new. That would have been a good place to end the play. Instead, Rudnick brings all the characters together in a New York maternity ward. It makes no sense, and to tie things up he has transplanted the end of “The Birdcage.” Thank goodness for the yards of rhinestone fabric costumer Marci Franklin drapes everyone in for the finale; if you can’t look at it, make it sparkle. Mr. Charles would understand.