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Second Thoughts: The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told

by Les Gutman

Adam (r.) and Steve
Paul Rudnick's latest arrival in New York comes on the heels of a brief tryout in the Berkshires this past summer (CurtainUp's review linked below) and an even briefer one-act play, "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach," which I reviewed as a part of Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon Series (also linked below). Both featured Rudnick's work directed by Christopher Ashley and highlighted by the performance of Peter Bartlett. Like Jeffrey, the play and movie that put Rudnick on the theatrical radar screen (and which also involved Hampton and Bartlett), they are part bonbon and part bons mots, but with a serious undercurrent as well.

Although Elyse Sommer's Berkshire's review described Fabulous Story as a work in progress, the current staging at New York Theatre Workshop evinces little additional work and thus, not surprisingly, little progress. Rudnick continues to write gay humor more sharply than just about anyone else, and his work steers us clear of frivolousness with its rumble of gravity. At its best, this gay retelling of the Bible is as much fun as the others -- a heck of a lot of fun, actually. But much of Rudnick's shtick is starting to feel like it has run its course, and at times it strains to maintain itself. While I described Mr. Charles as "unrelentingly giving its audience something to laugh at," Fabulous Story relents. There are several dead spots and, while there are two or three stellar performances on display here, some of the rest could be characterized as uneven or even anemic.

The three returnees from the Williamstown production are the reasons to see this version. Peter Bartlett is again in top form as a panoply of tres gay characters; most memorably a Pharoah and, most impressively, the increasingly vexed WASP Santa, Trey Pomfret. Becky Ann Baker is his lesbian equal in her amazing portrayal of the tres butch Jane (half of the couple Jane and Mabel--the latter now ably played by Kathryn Meisle). A host of her scenes vie for kudos, but the birthing scene Elyse described as a tour d'force would have to be considered the most impressive.

(Editor's Note: Jessica Hecht who played Mabel in Williamstown is currently distinguishing herself in another Off-Off-Broadway play Stop Kiss -- see links)

Although Alan Tudyk's Adam has less of Rudnick's funny lines by which to be remembered, his performance is no less grounded, and he is every bit as good. By comparison, Juan Carlos Hernandez never manages to offer much definition as his significant other, Steve. That role, which should produce the play's greatest intensity, falls flat. After romping around the stage nude in the early scenes, there's little conviction in anything else he does.

Speaking of running around nude, audiences in the East Village probably do not require the kind of sex-and-nudity alert Elyse offered in bucolic Williamstown, but the opening scenes do leave less to the imagination than some might prefer -- even less than the graphic above.

The best news among the newcomers is Joanna P. Adler, who renders Adam's Mormon teaching assistant, Peggy, brilliantly. The worst news is Lisa Kron's disabled lesbian Rabbi Sharon, a weak link in the play to begin with, which here threatens to be a show stopper in the most negative meaning of that expression. The cast is rounded out by a serviceable group of performances by Orlando Pabotoy (especially in several roles in which he could be described as a boy toy) and Amy Sedaris, who is fine as the stage manager playing God, a pun that wears out its welcome quickly but redeems itself at the last minute with her last line. It wouldn't have made much sense in Williamstown but, delivered from the theater lobby, it's a hysterical New York moment.

In an off-Broadway season in which the sizzle of a religious protest uptown stood in contrast to the fizzle of the "Gay Jesus" play (Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, see link) at which it was directed, it's interesting how quiet the reception for this "sacrilege" seems to be. It's also interesting how sensitively, but boldly, Rudnick handles the play's probative theme (even though its "apotheosis" in the play's ultimate moment has a limping inchoate quality). Even Rudnick's less-than-best work is distinguished by leaving his audiences not only with a lot of laughs, but something to think about as well.
by Paul Rudnick 
Directed by Christopher Ashley 
with Amy Sedaris, Alan Tudyk, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Orlando Pabotoy, Lisa Kron, Peter Bartlett, Joanna P. Adler, Becky Ann Baker and Kathryn Meisle 
Set Design: Michael Brown
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty 
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Choreography: Joey Pizzi 
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (Bowery/2 AV) (212) 460 - 5475  
Opened December 14, 1998
Seen 12/13/98 and Reviewed by Les Gutman 12/15/98
Original CurtainUp Berkshires review 
CurtainUp review of "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach"
Collage review of Corpus Christi
Stop Kiss starring the "original" Mabel

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© Elyse Sommer, December, 1998