A Review

Laughing Matters

By R. J. Donovan

Paul Rudnick's "The New Century," now in its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, is an intermission-less collection of four short, one-act plays, each with a gay theme or reference. The first three are essentially monologues, with the individual characters crossing paths in the fourth. Rudnick is also the author of "Jeffrey," "In And Out" and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told."

First up is "Pride and Joy" featuring Helene Nadler, self-proclaimed "most loving mother of all time." She's addressing a crowd -- us, actually -- at a meeting of the local chapter of “Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others.” It turns out she's an expert on many of those named in the group's title because she's got three kids, all of whom are gay -- a lesbian, a transsexual and a son into leather (and more).

Next is Mr. Charles, currently of Palm Beach, self-proclaimed "gayest man in the universe." The aging, campy, blonde-wigged Mr. C. previously called New York City home. However, he was driven out of town ("There was a vote!") by a Manhattan gay population that found his flamboyant personality cliched and too over the top. So now he hosts a local cable access show which fabulously celebrates his every bright-colored move. He chats, imparts his unique wisdom and even answers viewer mail (Question -- Mr. Charles, can gay people change? Answer -- Yes. For Dinner.) Mr. Charles has a young, hunky, boy toy, Shane, who, as the cable show sidekick, drifts in and out of the scene in a variety of outfits suited for his many jobs both with the show and in Mr. Charles' oh-so-delicious life.

Third is "Crafty," showcasing Barbara Ellen Diggs, bubbly Midwestern housewife who could easily be dubbed the most devoted arts-and-crafter in the world. Barbara Ellen lives to crochet, macrame, scrapbook and glue chenille snowmen on sweaters. Even better, she's a crafting competitor. She's made an evening gown for her cat, and proudly points to a toaster cozy she's fashioned in the style of a tuxedo jacket. She's addressing the Junior Chamber of Commerce in her hometown of Decatur, Illinois (again, that's us), about the joys, importance and overall endearments of crafting -- which is really about making something worth dusting. However, as Barbara Ellen continues her monologue, we learn she's lost a son to AIDS. And that tragedy resulted in her seeing the world in a larger light.

Director Paul Daigneault has assembled a sharp cast of Boston favorites for the three principals. Paula Plum is Helene, Robert Saoud is Mr. Charles, and Kerry A. Dowling is Barbara Ellen. (Boston Conservatory senior Bud Weber is Shane.)

The opening sequence with Helene is bright and blatant as the Jewish Mom from Massapequa dishes with the best of them. Rudnick has written what could almost be called a stand-up routine. It's very tight, and thanks to Paula Plum's talents, it's expertly delivered, beautifully paced, and laugh-out-loud funny. And it's a great way to start the evening.

When the lights came up on the third piece, I almost didn't recognize Kerry Dowling in her blonde pageboy wig. It took a second or two of her fussing with her many treasures on stage before I recognized the eyes and the smile. Her monologue is also sharp and funny, but not with the New York patina for which Rudnick has become known. Rather, the small town gal is all homey and cuddly and vastly removed from the sophistication and frenetic pace of the world her son was drawn to as a designer in lower Manhattan. Dowling's expert way on stage gives a lovely dimension to a character we might otherwise overlook. She skillfully leads us along with very funny commentary only to suddenly create a sadness that brings a lump to your throat. Beneath the twinkling eyes and appliqued vest lies a woman who feels. Deeply.

Bob Saoud is also a wonderful talent. But of Rudnick's three solo characters, Mr. Charles is the one that comes off as a little too cartoonish. Funny? Absolutely. But the material doesn't really provide Saoud a chance to give it something more. Still, he's a riot as he recreates a history of gay entertainment in 60 seconds.

For the final act, entitled "The New Century," Rudnick brings his eclectic band together in a New York City hospital, specifically the maternity ward. Babies are the future after all. Helene is checking out her new grandchild, Mr. Charles is practicing his self-proclaimed ability to turn people gay just by flicking his pinky at them, and Barbara Ellen is rolling around in a wheelchair, the victim of a traffic altercation. (The title, by the way, refers to the Century 21 department store adjacent to the World Trade Center.)

Each of the first three comedic shorts fires a machine gun of one-liners at the audience. Rudnick is known for his sharp barbs, and "New Century" maintains that reputation nicely.

However, the ending feels forced as he tries to wring a greater meaning from it all. Or at least wrap it all up, neatly or not. In the most simplistic of terms, we learn that no matter how different we are, we're all still very much the same.

But hey, the night is really about laughter. And that it has. Big time. And even if you sometimes enjoy sinking your teeth into a big, juicy prime rib, there's still plenty to be said for downing an entire bag of Malomars.

"The New Century" from SpeakEasy Stage, is at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center For The Arts, 527 Tremont Street, through February 14. For information, call 617-933-8600.

Production photos: Stratton McCrady

-- OnStage Boston




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