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A CurtainUp Review
The New Century

I don't know if I believe in God anymore. But I do believe in cute. .— Barbara Ellen Diggs, the crafts fanatic who defends her crafting with "sophisticated people say that crafts aren't art, but by the same token, some people say that New Yorkers aren't people."

New Century
Jane Houdyshell
(Photo) T. Charles Erickson.
Of the three characters at the center of Paul Rudnick's playlets about various aspects of sexual diversity, Jane Houdyshell's Midwestern crafts fanatic is the only one who manages to save some genuine poignancy from drowning in Rudnick's torrent of quips. However, even Houdyshell, whose somewhat late blossoming New York stage career (Fighting Words, Well, The Receptionist ) has made me one of her many devoted fans, can do just so much with Crafty, her solo turn in this that unites all the characters under the umbrella of the concluding piece, The New Century. review continues below

Like Houdyshell, Linda Lavin and Peter Bartlett, who star in the first two pieces, are seasoned thespians who can land a punch line with pitch perfect comic timing and the ability to set off a gale of laughter with a raised eyebrow or other physical gesture. Unfortunately, Rudnick hasn't served any of them well with what amounts to some gussied up stand-up riffs masquerading as a substantial modern comedy about sexual manners and mores.

New Century
Linda Lavin in New Century
(Photo) T. Charles Erickson.
Despite an admonition by Mr. Bartlett's character to " let us not resort to easy stereotypes," New Century starts off with Pride and Joy, about an über-stereotypical Jewish mother. Linda Lavin fits her elegant suit and the part of an elegant Long Island matron to perfection. Her Helene Nadler's monologue takes the form of an address to a support group of parents with gay and other sexually non-conformist children. She's triple-qualified to give advice and comfort: Daughter Leslie ("what was I thinking?") is a lesbian; son Ronnie is a transsexual, who, as Veronica, also happens to be a lesbian; baby son David is "seriously into leather" and scatological practices— the piece-de-resistance in her claim as a loving mother (as she puts it: "My Purple Heart, my Nobel Prize in motherhood"). Despite some funny stuff and Lavin's high-flying performance, the jokes are stretched to the point of seeming interminable and, in the case of poop and leather stuff, off-putting.

Actually, Rudnick has not only short changed the actors but himself as well by not making more of an effort to go beyond the type of gay sex focused, one liner studded scriptwriting that has become his signature. What's more, both the first and second items on this well performed and staged but fluffy as a Charlotte Russe menu, have been performed before.

Mr. Charles Currently of Palm Beach, has actually had two New York outings (both with Peter Bartlett)— at the Ensemble Studio's 1998 One-Act Marathon and three years later as part of a Rudnick triptych called Rude Entertanment (Mr. Charles in 1998 and in 2001). While some comic routines can withstand time and repeat viewings (think Abbott and Costello's classic Who's On First?), Mr. Charles, sad to say, hasn't aged well. What was hysterical is now just mildly amusing.

Bartlett, with an assist from costumer William Ivey Long, is still a vision of color as the television host exiled from New York because he was "too gay." However, minor updating, like a John McCain reference, hardly makes a case for Mr. Charles' warranting more stage time at one of our premiere nonprofit theaters. The glorious revival of South Pacific now at Lincoln Center's larger venue, seems to make this minor entertainment seem even less than the sum of its chuckles.

While the first three playlets are essentially monologues, Mike Doyle plays a role in the lives of the tolerance-tested Helene and the too out of fashion Mr. Charles. Playing Shane, Mr. Charles' young lover and popular young guest on his Florida public access cable show as well Helene's leather-clad masochistic son, is quite a departure for Doyle. When I last saw him he played the very personable and winning young embassy information officer in the Iraq War drama, Betrayed (review). I can't say I prefer him as a flamboyantly gay free sprit.

Both Doyle, and another minor character (Christy Pusz as a pregnant assistant on Mr. Charles' show who wants her baby to be more extraordinary than ordinary) return — along with Lavin, Bartlett and Houdyshell— in the final and title play. It takes place in the new baby ward of a downtown Manhattan hospital and at first promises to tie all these disparate little comedies into one big, unified package; but, like everything that precedes it, what starts well goes on a bit too long and in this case ends up as a huge plug for Century 21, the bargain department store in the World Trade Center area. Well, it almost ends there. Before the cast can shop until they drop, director Nicholas Martin wisely ends things with a jazzy ensemble dance. Might this have been more new century than old century, as a musical?

Four One-Act Plays by Paul Rudnick: Pride and Joy, Crafty, Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, The New Century
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Cast: Peter Bartlett (Mr. Charles), Mike Doyle (David Nadler, Shane), Jayne Houdyshell (Barbara Ellen Diggs), Linda Lavin (Helene Nadler), Christy Pusz (Joann Milderry) Sets : Allen Moyer
Costumes: William Ivey Long
Lighting : Kenneth Posner
Original Music and Sound : Mark Bennett
Pride and Joy
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission.
The Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center 150 West 65th Street 212-239-6200nt
From 3/20/08; opening 4/14/08; closing 6/08/08. Tickets: $75
Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm

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