The New Century

By Don Shewey

Originally published on Advocate.com May 08 2008 12:00 AM ET

Paul Rudnick’s plays are like deluxe snack food. You don’t expect a substantial meal, you’re always left a little undernourished, and the shelf life is way limited, but while they’re happening you can’t get enough. His latest work -- an evening of four one-act plays with a grand title (The New Century) and a classy address (New York City's Lincoln Center) -- may sound like a feast, but it’s really a tray of canapés, some of them stale and medium-tasty. It’s basically three monologues (two of which have been previously produced in New York) about parents and their gay kids, followed by a sketch that brings the characters all together in the maternity ward of a New York City hospital.

Crafty, which is the third play on the bill, features Barbara Ellen Diggs (played by Jayne Houdyshell), a homemaker from Decatur, Ill., who has been treating her depression with arts and crafts projects such as crocheting a tuxedo for her toaster and sewing an evening gown for her cat. (Hey, wasn’t that a Roz Chast cartoon?) Her speech to the Junior Chamber of Commerce somewhat raggedly stitches together the AIDS quilt (“My Lord, it’s like a cemetery created by the Ladies' Home Journal”), 9/11 (something about “Muslin terrorists”), and Christo’s Central Park installation The Gates, a souvenir of which she fashions into a bright orange oven mitt.

It is preceded by Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, which spotlights the floridly effeminate host of a cable-access TV show called Too Gay. It seems Mr. Charles (Peter Bartlett) -- who was kicked out of Manhattan (“There was a vote”) because of his uncontrollable “nelly breaks.” He answers questions from viewers (“ ‘What causes homosexuality?’ I do!”) and dispenses advice with the help of his go-go boy assistant Shane (Mike Doyle), who caps the star’s 60-second history of gay theater with a generous display of Gratuitous Frontal Male Nudity. When it was first performed 10 years ago, this little play seemed wicked and edgy; today it feels dated and soft. With a whole generation of gay nerds, tranny fags, and lesbian bois on board, no one’s complaining anymore about the drag queens giving everybody else a bad name.

By far the highlight of the set is Pride and Joy, which starts the evening off with a big bang. It’s a delirious stream of one-liners issuing from a Long Island Jewish mother addressing the Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned & Others. “Maybe we should just call this group ‘Why Jimmy Has No Friends.’ I’m kidding!” Helen Nadler (the ferociously funny Linda Lavin) insists that she ranks as the most accepting and tolerant mother of all time. After all, she adores Will & Grace (“It was like if Pottery Barn sold people”). And her three children have come out as a lesbian (“You’re a professional tennis player, you have two cats named Alice and Mrs. Dalloway, you live with a female social worker, and you have the same haircut as a 12-year-old Amish boy -- of course you’re a lesbian!”), an MTF transgender lesbian (“Ronnie, didn’t you take the long way around? For what we spent on hormones, I could’ve had a new kitchen”), and a gay leather man who’s into bondage and poop (“For a second, I lose it, I become my mother, I say, ‘David, in this house we use the toilet, not a friend from Tribeca!’”). For all her agonizing (“I turned to my husband and I said, ‘Morris, I gave birth to three perfect children -- what did you do to them?’”), Helen comes to assure other parents that “maybe all they’re doing is finding very individual, very new, and very irritating ways not to be lonely.”

Considering that the 20-minute-long Pride and Joy has more laughs per minute than any other show in the show, Rudnick can sort of be excused for the eponymous final play of the evening, which seems to suggest that the cure for whatever ails you in the 21st century is a shopping spree and your own cable TV show. Although maybe he’s being uncharacteristically Brechtian and saying, If you disagree, prove me wrong!