EmptyMitzi Newhouse Theatre, New York
Through June 8
No one can deny Paul Rudnick's knack for one-liners. Unfortunately, the comic playwright is equally prolific with one-joke characters, as becomes increasingly obvious in "The New Century."
This collection of four short works features three episodes that center on a flamboyant individual, with the fourth piece uniting all the characters under one roof. Also common to each episode is a gay theme, which has been Rudnick's chief calling card since he gained fame with the award-winning "Jeffrey" in the early '90s.
The production opens with "Pride and Joy," in which a matronly Jewish woman (Linda Lavin) in a Long Island, N.Y., auditorium explains to listeners how she's "the most tolerant mother of all time" because she accepts her daughter's lesbianism, her son's desire to become a transsexual and her youngest son's outlandish gay fetishes.
The second piece, "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach," tells of an older, unmistakably fey late-night cable host (Peter Bartlett) in Florida who relates how his queeny actions got him exiled from New York. He also introduces his handsome, fantasy-fulfilling young ward (Mike Doyle) and a confused audience member (Christy Pusz) who wants her infant son to grow up gay.
In the third, "Crafty," a plus-size, middle-aged arts-and-crafts expert (Jayne Houdyshell) in Decatur, Ill., relates how making homemade knick-knacks distracts from her sorrow over the loss of her grown son, who moved to New York and contracted AIDS shortly before 9/11.
The concluding chapter, "The New Century," brings the quintet to a Manhattan maternity ward, where the five individuals compare life stories, debate the merits of New York City discount emporium Century 21 and consider their futures.
Clearly, it's a scattershot agenda, and that's part of the problem. Rudnick has a hard time negotiating between sitcom-level banter and the tragedies of everyday life. Particularly egregious is when he has one woman being confused by the World Trade Center's destruction via "muslin terrorists," with her wondering how "cheap cotton" could bring down the towering structures. Her increasingly strained monologue flits from the value of Hummel figurines to the merits of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, then wraps up by referencing the 2005 installation of Christo's the Gates in Central Park. All that's missing is the kitchen sink.
However, nothing seems more forced than the finale, as the characters cross paths to very little payoff. Then again, weak endings are a consistent problem with Rudnick. That's true even in the first two pieces, that -- all things being relative -- are the strongest. There, the playwright taps into his gift for humorous ripostes and off-color observations, though each still seems like a "Saturday Night Live" skit that just goes on and on.
Despite such verbiage, director Nicholas Martin tries to keep the pacing quick and makes the most of sparse sets and utilitarian lighting. He also knows how to work the cast, with each member giving more than their cliched character deserves.
Houdyshell has the toughest battle as the unsophisticated Midwesterner who tries to knit her way to happiness. She has good comic timing and conveys more through body language than the script ever communicates. Bartlett also earns applause as the limp-wristed Paul Lynde clone who doesn't understand why gays no longer want to be "nellie." (Therein lies a truly innovative concept, which Rudnick inexplicably drops.) And Lavin holds her own as the put-upon mother of an especially unique brood.
In supporting roles, Pusz wrings a few chuckles from her addled baby-mama routine, while Doyle nicely works the dumb himbo, nevermind getting through his scene of totally gratuitous, full-frontal nudity with as much aplomb as possible.
So, will all this please Rudnick's die-hard fans? Some might be miffed at having already seen the Mr. Charles character as it's been recycled from a previous work. But one needn't be familiar with Rudnick's oeuvre to be overwhelmed by deja vu -- and underwhelmed by "The New Century."
THE NEW CENTURY
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
Playwright: Paul Rudnick
Director: Nicholas Martin
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer/original music: Mark Bennett
Helene Nadler: Linda Lavin
Shane: Mike Doyle
Mr. Charles: Peter Bartlett
Joann Milderry: Christy Pusz
Barbara Ellen Diggs: Jayne Houdyshell