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Saturday, 12 May 2012 23:20

Millennium Retreats

Written by Andrea Braun

The Details / John Lamb / John Lamb

Paul Rudnick’s The New Century is a funny play with an agenda—on paper. In Max and Louie’s production, it has its moments, but is disappointing overall.

The work is comprised of four one-act plays, the first three introducing characters through monologues or only brief appearances by other actors. Two had been performed as stand-alone pieces when Rudnick got the idea to add one more and then a final playlet, “The New Century,” to tie them all together for a full-length piece. If you know Rudnick’s work, his greatest strength is not structure; rather it is jokes, but these jokes usually come to a point of some sort. Here, the one-liners are delivered by people who are cultural stereotypes with the intention of exploding them through exaggeration, or at least saying, “We’re here, we may or may not be queer, get used to it.”

“Pride and Joy” opens the show, and it reads the strongest of the bunch, but was the least effectively performed. Artistic Director Stellie Siteman is Helene Nadler, “The most accepting, the most tolerant, and the most loving mother of all time. Bar none” [Italics Rudnick]. She is addressing a meeting of P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C. &O., the letters of which are on a banner stretched above her. (The “Cs” stand for “Curious” and “Creatively Concerned” and the “O” for other, so this is a wide tent.) Bouncing like a pinball from mother love to fierce anger and back again, she tells the story of her three beloved children: a lesbian, transgender man to woman, and gay man into S&M (with scatology being his favorite element). Could a nice Jewish mother from Long Island just plotz?

Rudnick has provided Helene with a fiercely funny monologue but Siteman’s just not up to it. The jokes don’t land, and the disgusting parts do. The end, and this is the writer’s fault, doesn’t work at all when she trots out her leather-loving son in full regalia and makes him do tricks to show the audience what a good slave he is. But nearly all of this piece consists of Helene talking to “us,” her audience of “parents.” She seems uncomfortable and her comic timing is off. Director Ted Gregory hasn’t done anything (that I can tell) to help her find Helene.

We, as audience, actually have a great deal to do here, as we play four characters, as well. In the second one-act, “Mr. Charles, currently of Palm Beach,” we are watching a bi-weekly local cable TV show that runs at 4 a.m. Mr. Charles is the self-proclaimed gayest man in the world. His clothes would give Liberace a headache, and he was actually asked to leave New York City for being “too gay.” He is proud of his status, however, and he gives on-air advice to people who write “queries” to him. He is assisted by his “ward” of three weeks, Shane (Josh Payne), who “lives to dance,” but is no brain trust. Mr. Charles uses him like a big gay Ken doll, putting him in various fantasy outfits, including Batman’s ward, Robin; a G.I., and so on. Mr. Charles is insulting to everyone, especially lesbians. His finest moment is “giving the entire history of gay theatre in 60 seconds.” And it is a brilliant piece of writing, but again, Alan Knoll, as fine an actor as he is, doesn’t pull it off. His best bit is with a young woman named Joann (Elizabeth Graveman) who approaches him with a strange request. She’s the one who brings up The Wizard of Oz.

“Crafty” showcases the sublime Peggy Billo, and finally the show begins to cook. This character could so easily devolve into parody but Billo does not let that happen. This time, the audience plays the Decatur, IL Junior Chamber of Commerce who “Barbara Ellen Diggs,” craftsperson extraordinare, is addressing. She demonstrates her wares, talks about a grant she has applied for to fund the most extensive tribute to American crafts ever, a series of plaques commemorating every known medium. She begins rather nervously, but once she gets comfortable, her monologue is funny, sad, revealing, and uplifting—often in the same sentence. Billo doesn’t just play Barbara Ellen, she lives her. This piece alone is worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, there is “The New Century” to go, in which all five characters meet and bond in a hospital maternity ward. The only one with a plausible reason for being there is Helene, but the others all come up with rather far-fetched reasons for their presence. Here, the audience is just onlookers, or maybe we’re the innocent babies the characters gaze upon as they imagine the different futures in store for these newborns. This scene is the one of the four that I find most contrived. At first, the too-slow pace we’ve enduring throughout picks up, and we do learn more about them, especially the Ralph Lauren obsessed, age-fearing Helene. When Shane arrives laden with shopping bags, he has been to Ground Zero and he found the store across the street called “Century 21.” He is thrilled with the bargains he scored and so is everyone else. The store’s name provides the title, which of course refers to the times in which we live, but I ended up unsure of what it all means. New beginnings, maybe? Or better living through discount shopping? The very end goes back to Palm Beach for another sequence that provides the finale.

One problem, that is simply the fault of the theatre space, is that we are too close to the actors. If we are to see them as over-the-top personalities, we need a little distance. The first row is only a couple of feet from and on the same level as the performers who don’t have room to make their characters live and breathe for us. Big clunky props are distracting during scene changes, though I like the banners to delineate each place. Gary Wayne Barker gets a credit as “announcer,” but he isn’t even there, and someone missed a sound cue and started his spiel too early in the last scene. Marci Franklin’s costumes are fun. I enjoyed the clever sound design (Mark Griggs), but by playing us recordings of comedy routines by Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly on “Match Game,” Liberace, Phyllis Diller, etc., before the show and at intermission, we were only reminded of the humor we mostly weren’t seeing and hearing right in front of us.

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