Paul Rudnick fans will be in gay theater heaven for the month of December as the playwright’s latest comedy, The New Century, gets its West Coast Premiere at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre in a terrific production under the able direction of Igor Goldin.

If the fabulous Mr. Rudnick’s name doesn’t ring a bell (are you straight?!), perhaps a list of his plays (I Hate Hamlet, Jeffrey, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Valhalla) and movies (Addams Family Values, Jeffrey, In & Out, Isn’t She Great, Marci X, The Stepford Wives) will.  

Having seen Jeffrey (the movie) umpteen times, and In & Out and Marci X almost as many, I count myself among Rudnick’s biggest fans. (Yes, Marci X, and if you want my opinion, cutting Marci down to 84 minutes was the biggest film editing crime of 2003.)

About as out as an out gay playwright/screenwriter can be, Rudnick eschews political correctness for some of the most hilarious (and spot-on) writing around, and The New Century is no exception. Stereotypes may abound, but they are stereotypes based on truth, and written with such affection that only a holiday curmudgeon could manage to keep a (pardon the expression) straight face during the festivities.

Each of The New Century’s three main characters stars in his or her own ten-to-twenty-minute scene (basically monologs with an extra character popping up in numbers one and two). Then, all five dramatis personae come together in the play’s bang-up fourth scene, adding up to two acts (or about an hour and forty-five minutes) of outrageous hilarity and (believe it or not) a tear or two.


Scene 1, Pride And Joy:  
First up is “the most accepting, the most tolerant, and the most loving mother of all time,” aka Helene from Long Island, now addressing a meeting of P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C.&O (that’s the Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, The Transgendered, The Questioning, The Curious, The Creatively Concerned and Others.) If having a gay child is like winning the West Hollywood Lottery, then Helene is a lottery winner three times over. Daughter Leslie is a lesbian, son Ronnie has transitioned into Veronica, i.e. lesbian daughter number two, and youngest son David is “seriously into” leather and scat, making child number three Helene’s “Purple Heart,” her “Nobel Prize in motherhood.”

Though Helene is not above casting blame (she’s told hubby Morris, “I gave birth to three perfect children. What did you do to them?”) or reproaching Veronica her medical bills (“For what we spent on hormones, I could have had a new kitchen.”), Helene is a mother to be respected and admired.  She’s also learned a bit about B&D from David, who appears in full leather drag awaiting Mom’s orders.  “Clean your room!” she barks out. “Yes, master,” he replies. A yank on his leash and David corrects himself, “Y-y-yes… Mother!” 


Scene 2, Mr. Charles, Currently Of Palm Beach: 
Mr. Charles, who like Madonna needs no last name, is quite possibly the gayest man ever born. How gay is that? “I am so deeply homosexual,” reveals Mr. Charles, “that with just a glance, I can actually turn someone gay.” (Seriously.) Dressed in flamboyant pastels, Mr. Charles wears a hairpiece so unreal that it’s been mistaken for a hat.

Host of his very own biweekly 4 a.m. cable TV program, Too Gay, Mr. Charles spends much of his on-air time answering viewers questions.  Here are a few: 
•“Can gay people change?”  “Of course. For dinner.”
•“How can you tell if the man sitting next to you at the theater is gay?”  “He’s saving his Playbill. And he’s awake.”
•“What causes homosexuality?”  “I do.”

As to the question of how he ended up in Palm Beach, Mr. Charles’ answer is quick and to the point.  He was kicked out of New York for being too gay, hence the name of his TV show.

The highlight of tonight’s (this morning’s?) episode of Too Gay is Mr. Charles’ 60-Second History Of Gay Theater, composed entirely of actual quotes from actual plays and arguably one of the funniest gay monologs ever written (though it does take more than 60 seconds to deliver).

Mr. Charles is aided and abetted on Too Gay by his “ward” and “devoted companion,” Shane, a go-go boy-for-hire, who appears in numerous guises (including as Batman’s Robin) and demonstrates one of Mr. Charles’ Rules Of Gay Theater by treating the audience to a not-too-long-but-long-enough moment of completely gratuitous full-frontal nudity.

Making a brief appearance at the end of Too Gay is Mr. Charles’ receptionist Joann, a new mother with a request for her employer, one regarding her baby son. (Focus On The Family members will not find themselves amused, but you will.)

Scene 3, Crafty
The “crafty” lady in question is Midwest matron Barbara Ellen Diggs, here to show off her dozens of arts-and-crafts inventions made of papier-mâché, macramé, human hair, etc.  (You name it, she’s got a use for it.)  Inventive Barbara Ellen has created toaster tuxedos, Last Supper cakes, evening gowns for cats, etc. (You name it, she’s made it.)

Barbara Ellen defends her craft (pun intended) by declaring that “sophisticated people say that crafts aren’t art, but by the same token, some people say that New Yorkers aren’t people.”

As we get to know Barbara Ellen better, we come to realize that there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye.  Barbara Ellen’s son (and only child) died during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and it’s only her arts and crafts that have kept her alive and smiling. Profoundly moved by the attacks of 9-11 (though she thought at first that “muslin” terrorists were responsible), Barbara Ellen tells us, “I’m not sure I believe in God anymore. But I believe in cute. And glue.” And Barbara Ellen, we believe in you.

Scene 4, The New Century
Helene, Mr. Charles, Barbara Ellen, Shane, and Joann all come together in the maternity ward of a New York hospital for the evening’s altogether smashing coda, one that brings even more laughter, another couple tears, and a feeling that odd as we all are, there is hope for us all in The New Century.

Two things in particular make Rudnick’s latest so much more than just a clever series of one-liners.

First is the depth hiding just below the surface of what appear at first to be entirely superficial characters. Helene isn’t merely the mother of three gay clichés carried to the nth degree. She’s the mother so many gay people wish they had, one with more than enough unconditional love to go around, one who will kill tigers for her children, and one with a sense of humor about life. Mr. Charles may be “too gay for New York,” but any Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell had better beware before tangling with Mr. C.  This is a man who confesses to one day having fallen “passionately in love—with being gay,” and no one had better pick a fight with a man in love.  Finally, there’s Barbara Ann, precisely the type of Red State housewife so easy to stereotype as provincial, unsophisticated, and intolerant. Wrong. Like Helene, Barbara Ann’s love comes without conditions.  Unlike Helene, Barbara Ann has had to find a way to walk through life with a smile on her face even though her heart has been broken beyond repair.

The second reason Diversionary’s The New Century is such a winner is its stellar cast, and particularly the performances of its three leads.

The divine Dana Hooley plays Helene with equal parts sarcasm, good humor, and warmth, and she delivers her lines with perfect comic timing.  As flamboyant as Phil Johnson is as Mr. Charles, he resists the temptation tooverplay, making this “gay stereotype” both a man and a mensch. Best of all is Jacque Wilke, the personification of perkiness as Barbara Ellen, but oh do her eyes speak volumes, threatening at any moment to well up with tears even as there is a smile on her lips and in her voice. I defy anyone in the audience not to fall in love with Barbara Ellen—in fact with all three.

Noah Longton is more waif than hunk as Shane, but the casting works, and the recent University Of Northern Colorado grad plays Robin to Mr. Charles’ Batman with a combination of vivacity, bravado, and charm. (He’s also hidden under leather and with a Long Island accent as David.)  Making a strong impression in the small but important role of Joann is the lovely Stacey Hardke, a recent graduate of her hometown University Of San Diego.

As always, Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes are just right for each character, from Mr. Charles’ pastel scarves and necktie belt to Barbara Ellen’s gingham frocks to all but one of Longton’s trendy outfits, the sole exception a Mother Nature Design. Jason Bieber’s lighting and Blair Robert Nelson’s sound design do the job well, as does Goldin and Bret Young’s simple but satisfactory set.

Ultimately, The New Century is about the writing and the performances, and in both, The Diversionary has hit the bull’s-eye. Paul Rudnick’s hilarious look at the first decade of the 21st is the perfect choice for San Diegans and adventurous Angelinos in search of a bit of spice and tang in their holiday theater.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
December 6, 2009
                                                       Photos: Daren Scott

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