It’s a measure of how much times have changed over the less than eight years since Paul Rudnick’s Regrets Only debuted off-Broadway that Rudnick’s contemporary comedy has already become what some critics might call “dated” … and it’s a measure of Rudnick’s comedic mastery that this matters not a whit, not with characters as wedding-cake delectable as those now onstage at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, and certainly not in a production as pitch-perfect as the one Jessica John has directed for America’s third-oldest continuously-producing LGBT theater.
Broadway/off-Broadway fans will recognize Rudnick’s name from such side-splitting gems as I Hate Hamlet, Jeffrey, and Diversionary Theatre’s Scenie-winning The New Century, while movie buffs have chuckled, guffawed, and outright howled their way through Addams Family Values, Marci X, and the groundbreaking In & Out.
Regrets Only shines its comical spotlight on renowned fashion designer Hank Hadley (Andrew Oswald), the gay man In & Out’s Howard Brackett could easily have become had he chosen gowning the world’s rich-&-famous over educating small-town high school youth, and though 60ish Hank could hardly be said to have lived Howard’s closeted life (he and life partner Mike were after all together for decades before Mike’s recent cancer death), Hank has always been the sort of gay man who prefers to keep his “private life private,” a reticence that was the longtime couple’s sole bone of contention in their thirty-plus years together.
Deprived now of his beloved Mike, Hank would surely find his current life a dismal wreck were it not for his best-friendship with Manhattan socialite Tibby McCullough (Kerry McCue) and their shared love of fashion, fabulousness, and charitable causes. (Tibby: “At eight we’re expected at the Pierre. There’s a fundraiser for multiple amputees.” Hank: “Will there be dancing?”)
Fortunately too for Hank, Tibby’s wealthy attorney husband Jack (Charles Maze) and their equally powerhouse lawyer daughter Spencer (Rachael VanWormer) have become the design star’s famille de choix over the years, a fact that makes Spencer’s announcement that she’s just been popped the question by her rich, handsome investment banker boyfriend Peter Perryman the same joyous bit of news for Hank as it is for Jack and Tibby.
As for Spencer’s wedding dress, who better to design it than Hank Hadley? (Well, there is Valentino, but “you do see his gowns everywhere, especially on prom night,” and Spencer could have Donna Karan do her wedding frock “because then you could wear it to work,” but no. Only a Hank Hadley gown will suffice.)
Only one thing stands in the way of Spencer and Peter’s plans to tie the knot as soon as their high-society nuptials can be wedding-planned. Spencer’s father has just been asked by none other than the President Of The United States to help him “fine-tune” a potential constitutional amendment, and not just any constitutional amendment, but one would “come up with a more workable and ironclad definition of legal marriage … between a man and a woman” … and Jack would like his daughter’s help in drafting said amendment.
(Recall that it was only four months before Regrets Only’s October 2006 premiere that 236 U.S. Representatives voted in favor of just such a constitutional amendment and you’ll get an idea of just how hot-button Rudnick’s comedy was when it debuted—and praise be the recent sea change in public opinion that any threat of a Federal Marriage Amendment now seems a thing of the past.)
Naturally, the President’s request prompts Regrets Only’s quartet of protagonists to reflect on matters of marriage, commitment, and fidelity—as defined both traditionally and in our 21st-century world—and more specifically on whether what Hank and Mike had for so many years was anything like Jack and Tibby’s thirty-some-year constitutionally legal marriage.
I’ll leave it to Diversionary Theatre audiences to discover for themselves whether Jack and Spencer end up acceding to the President’s request. Suffice it to say that their decision plants a seed in Hank’s head that leads to Act Two’s hilarious “what if” scenario, one that involves Tibby’s grand dame of a mother Marietta Claypoole (Dagmar Krause Fields), the McCullough’s wacky maid Myra Kesselman (Teri Brown), and two of the wildest hairdos (or hairdont’s) you’ve likely ever seen, courtesy of wig designer Peter Herman.
Another playwright could easily have mined high drama from Regrets Only’s storyline, and even Rudnick recognizes that this is serious business we’re talking about, as when Hank recalls the moment when he was refused entry into a just-collapsed Mike’s hospital room “because I wasn’t a member of his immediate family,” or when Hank reflects that of the other twenty-seven amendments, “the only one that tried to stop people from doing something … didn’t work out so well.”
Still, it wouldn’t be a Paul Rudnick play if the laughs didn’t come fast and furious, and fast and furious they do indeed arrive, especially when the folks uttering them are as out-and-out fabulous as the cast assembled on the Diversionary Theatre stage.
As Hank, Oswald gives one of the finest, richest, subtlest, and most downright superb performances you’ll see anytime soon, and the equally spectacular McCue gives Christine Baranski (who originated the role of Tibby) a run for her money, which is just about the highest praise this reviewer can render. And if previous production’s of Regrets Only have been criticized for featuring characters “you dan’t care about,” such is not the case at Diversionary Theatre.
Director John calls the Diversionary production her “love letter” to the “wonderful love that exists between gay men and straight women,” and if (to use John’s words) the “incomparable relationship” between Hank and Tibby doesn’t touch your heart and bring a few tears to your eyes, you are made of stronger stuff than this reviewer.
The charismatic Maze makes for an absolutely splendid Jack, Fields is mature glamour and wit personified as Marietta (and a humungous laugh-getter in fright wig and trash-bag “chic”), and if the sunny Brown isn’t nearly as caustic as the “honk”-voiced Myra Rudnick has written, she still gets plenty of laughs from the Jewish maid’s penchant for adopting foreign-accented personas and eavesdropping at doors.
Last but not least, there would appear to be no finer, busier, nor more versatile young San Diego-based actress than VanWormer, whose smart, sophisticated Spencer has nothing at all in common with Speech & Debate’s geeky, music-vlogging Diwata (a role that won VanWormer a Best Lead Actress Scenie back in 2010) other than that is the same gifted actor inhabiting both characters’ skins.
Scenic designer Matt Scott makes the very most of an intimate-theater budget in creating Jack and Tibby’s “de-luxe apartment in the sky,” which lighting designer Luke Olson illuminates quite terrifically given the current Diversionary fund-raising campaign to upgrade the theater’s stage lights. (Props go too to prop designer Samantha Vesco.)
Alina Bokovikova’s costumes could not be more stylish or stunning, whether tuxes courtesy of show sponsor Friar Tux or gowns that any real-life Hank Hadley would be proud to call his own. Composer/sound designer Keven Anthenill completes Regrets Only’s production design to perfection.
Chad Shelton is associate lighting designer and Kacia Castelli is assistant costume designer. Jon Huckaby is stage manager and Jazmine Choi stagehand.
Todd Nelms is Diversionary Theatre’s acting executive artistic director and Anthony Methvin artistic associate.
As StageSceneLA brings to a close its seventh year of Spotlighting The Best In Southern California Theater, Diversionary Theatre’s Regrets Only is just one example of the vibrant theater scene unfolding a hundred or so miles south of L.A.
I’ve seen more than two-dozen Diversionary productions over the past six years. This is one of the very best.
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.
August 30, 2014
Photos: Darren Scott