The New Century
Richard Green – Talkin’ Broadway, May 16, 2012
Armistead Maupin once described 1970s San Francisco as the place where “the love that dare not speak its name never shuts up.” Likewise, metaphorically or not, there’s always somebody in the world of playwright Paul Rudnick up there on the dance-box, bathed in flashing disco lights, and the playwright’s equally flashy wit, who just won’t stop dancing. The good news is that The New Century looks at those who are doomed to watch from the floor in obscurity. And, thanks to the cast of this show, they’re pretty darned interesting, too.
It’s mostly a series of monologs, based on older sketches, with Stellie Siteman and Alan Knoll bravely carrying the banner of Mr. Rudnick into battle against the usual glare of stage-lights overhead. It’s even a little overwhelming, that first act, with these two sleek comic performers throwing it all right out there, and getting all your potential objections and squeamishness out in the open all at once. You might get the impression that the highly successful playwright/screenwriter/novelist/essayist is still waging some kind of private war that any good therapist could have put to rest years ago, were it not just such good business.
But the whole texture changes after intermission, with Peggy Billo as the homespun lady who turns her crafting ways into a lasting memorial to her late son, in the most beautifully written section of the show. Her account of long hours in a New York AIDS ward may put a lump up in your throat.
First, though, Ms. Siteman answers the question: what happens when your children are offered complete sexual freedom? (Hint: it costs about as much as a new kitchen.) And Mr. Knoll, in his sherbet-colored slacks and jacket, has a Florida based cable-access program called “Too Gay,” where he reflects on being thrown out of New York City for his unrestrained flamboyance. Both look witheringly on their own lives and expectations, and offer barely conscious expressions of love for their children, or their brethren in society, between the rainbow flag-waving jokes.
But all three monologists are, more or less, “next of kin” to whomever they’re discussing, which presents an entirely different sort of dramatic challenge. Ms. Billo rises to it magnificently, in her dowdy clothes and country-wife haircut, coming out from under a dark period of mourning. And though Ms. Siteman’s character has all her children wildly alive, they nearly all seem to exist in her own internal scrapbook, thanks to the script. Then there’s Mr. Knoll, who may be a sort of father of all modern gay men, though he’s probably too embarrassing to have around in any really modern context. Hence, his de facto deportation to South Florida.
He does get back to New York, by a sort of one-man underground railway, if you can imagine a cable-access version of South Florida’s “Pompano Bill” making such a journey, silk scarf and all, up through the Deep South. Somehow, everything comes together in the end.
But that ending is highly problematic: Mr. Charles (the Floridian peacock) and his boy toy magically end up at the same hospital as Ms. Siteman’s character, and Ms. Billo’s, too. All I can say is, thank goodness these are all bright, engaging, dedicated and seasoned performers, because only they could survive the drudgery of playwright Rudnick’s final ten minutes or so. Thanks to these performers, and the very admirable director Ted Gregory, you too will outlast these last few twists and tricks and turns. But just barely.
Really, it’s quite a pleasant, chatty little show up till then. But somehow (and I really pride myself on figuring these things out), suddenly, we’re supposed to believe that gay men shopping, or their mothers shopping, is the only thing they need to make everything all right again. Maybe if shopping had been more of a theme at any other point in the play, it would somehow have greater meaning here at the end. Instead, it’s just the gay equivalent of someone shouting “surf’s up!” in a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello movie. Except, of course, the beach is a well-established theme in those.
But go, enjoy; admire Ms. Siteman’s and Mr. Knoll’s waspish quips and Ms. Billo’s wonderfully simple, heartfelt remembrance. It’s a well-balanced meal of titillation and defiance, and a great big helping of unequivocal love. And, finally, that “dump cake” of an ending.
Just remember, though: if it’s a metaphor for anything, it’s something to do with the emptiness of getting exactly what the playwright knows you wanted all along. And I guess that means you can just leave your cash on Mr. Rudnick’s night stand when you’re done.