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Tragedy strikes on Oscar night, splitting the emotions of Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Stratford (Brian Hutchison) in the world premiere of playwright Paul Rudnick’s seriocomic ensemble piece, Big Night. What happens when the real world comes crashing through the bubble of celebrity? Apparently nothing much, as Michael hunkers down in his hotel suite with friends and family, including a corrosive yet effervescent Wendie Malick, for a bout of hand-wringing, quippy one-liners and meandering monologues.
The one-liners are a trademark of Rudnick’s, whose breakout AIDS comedy, Jeffrey, was full of them. Winner of a 1993 Obie Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and the John Gassner Playwriting Award, Rudnick had already found success in Hollywood with Sister Act, and had the sequel coming out that same year, as well as Addams Family Values. A creature of both Broadway and Hollywood, Rudnick wrote satirical film criticism as Libby Gelman-Waxner for a column in Premiere Magazine until it folded in 2007, continuing at Entertainment Weekly.
With a dense résumé spanning roughly 30 years, there’s no doubt the writer is familiar with his chosen milieu in Big Night. The mid-century hotel suite by scenic designer John Lee Beatty features floor-to-ceiling windows with a stunning view of Los Angeles in the background. Nervous about his prospects of beating Matt Damon for the Oscar, Michael is calmed by his new agent, Cary Blumenthal (a scene-stealing Max Jenkins), who offers him a gift of cuff links. “They’re from the agency,” he notes. “See the logo?”
Jenkins kills in the early going, the perfect vehicle for Rudnick’s best zingers. In fact gags are abundant in the play’s first half, and occasionally some of them land — “Now there’s a woman who believes cosmetics should be tested on Republicans” — but many more do not, with a few summoning the sound of crickets.
When Michael’s nephew Eddie (Tom Phelan) arrives, the plot begins to creep forward. A transgender LGBTQ activist, he implores his uncle to use his soapbox, should he win, to make a statement on behalf of the community. It’s a question that demands more attention as the play moves into its later stages, but first Michael’s mother, Esther (Malick), arrives with her new lover, a double Pulitzer Prize-winning professor from Columbia University, Eleanor (Kecia Lewis).
The two enter just in time to bring much-needed brassy-broad energy to a comedy that has begun to meander. And continues to do so as Malick does what everyone does in this play — that is to launch into a monologue while the others sit rapt, listening as if it were the Panic Broadcast of 1938.
Michael’s partner, Austin (Luke Macfarlane), arrives directly from the scene of a mass shooting at the LGBTQ center where Eddie often volunteers. The tragedy ignites passion but no action from the ensemble. It is here that an interesting possibility arises about a group of wealthy and influential people rendered impotent, trapped in a form of stasis in the face of calamity. And it’s here that Big Night might have become a razor-sharp satire along the lines of Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, in which bourgeois dinner guests find themselves mysteriously unable to leave a gathering at a lavish mansion. Instead, the play keeps hurtling forward with more monologues and no end in sight.
If these and other issues are addressed in subsequent drafts, hopefully veteran director Walter Bobbie’s work with his cast can be fine-tuned. A 2007 Tony winner for Chicago, Bobbie’s timing with the actors often brings added punch to Rudnick’s best lines. But just as often his actors are rooted to the carpet like floor lamps, listening to yet another discursive expository passage. If character comes out of action, Rudnick’s characters take no action. Their vague contours are only exacerbated by unfocused direction, hamstringing an otherwise solid cast.
Big Night plays without intermission with a running time of roughly 90 minutes, but with little plot or pacing it feels longer. Writing about Jeffrey for The New York Times, Stephen Holden compared Rudnick to Oscar Wilde. That might have been an overstatement, but one of Michael’s lines late in the play comes pretty close: “There’s nothing worse than a human being, nothing. And once in a very long while, nothing better.” It proves that Rudnick still has it. Hopefully we’ll see more of it in his next show, the musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada with a score by Elton John.
Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Wendie Malick, Max Jenkins, Luke Macfarlane, Tom Phelan, Brian Hutchison, Kecia Lewis
Director: Walter Bobbie
Playwright: Paul Rudnick
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Music and sound designer: Karl Fredrik Lundberg
Presented by Center Theatre Group
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