|(Greg Violand as Mr. Charles and Steven J. West as Shane in the Dobama Theatre production of Paul Rudnick's "The New Century." Photo by Steve Wagner.)|
Yes, the genitals were stellar, but since the purpose of the evening was legit theater, rather than male burlesque, it would be unseemly not to mention that they were attached to one Stephen J. West, who in turn was attached to a buoyant production of Paul Rudnick's "The New Century."
Just as Ibsen's social conscience and Chekhov's expert grasp of failed souls gave birth to a generation of high-minded passion plays, so here Neil Simon's knowing, wisecracking insights into human behavior and Patrick Dennis' campy, fey, joyous gooses of human absurdities commingled to engender the daffy wisdom of playwright Rudnick.
Rudnick functions best as a miniaturist. His plays and screenplays tend to splinter into hors d'oeuvres, rather than sustained meals. But these tidbits have the airy confection of an expert pastry chef. "The New Century" is composed of three separate character studies, each equipped with a gimmick, a multitude of Simon-esque guffaws and a well-earned heart tug. At the end, Rudnick attempts a flourish by bringing his disparate kvetchers together in a maternity ward for a mystical, Tony Kushner-like resolution.
The vignettes commence with the most liberal of Jewish mothers coming to terms with a triumvirate of offspring, who change their sex, eroticize feces and practice law in sadomasichistic leather. The second part chronicles the public-access TV adventures of one Mr. Charles, "the world's gayest man," as he combines Ed Sullivan and Liberace in a show dedicated to gay theater and more camping than ever took place in the Adirondacks. Eventually, the long-suffering Mr. Charles has to accept the fact that his brand of queerness has become passe and that his splendid boy-toy is anything but a brainless guttersnipe. The third vignette shows Rudnick's skill for sneaking melancholy into the mirth in Decatur, Ill., where one Barbara Ellen Diggs exults in the healing powers of macrame as she tearfully reminisces about the AIDS death of her beloved son.
There are many reasons why the evening's 90 minutes seem to dance by with the exquisite grace of Balanchine's snow flakes. But let us lay the blame or praise on Scott Plate, who directs with the giddy aplomb of a Paul Lynde mug. Among his gleaming ensemble players, Greg Violand's Mr. Charles suggests a castrated French bulldog in a platinum toupee. West, as his voluptuous sidekick, performs a wonderful sex change of the oh-so-wise dumb blondes of Judy Holliday vintage.
As the ur-Jewish mother, Helene Nadler serves up the vinegar-through-the-schmaltz routine in the manner of our finest delis. And in the most heartbreaking performance of the evening, Molly McGinnis unravels like one of her beloved tea cozies as the arts-and-crafts addicted Barbara Ellen.
"The New Century" may not be your traditional Yuletide revels, but it has the essential holiday ingredient - the milk of human kindness behind each ho-ho-ho.
"The New Century" runs through Sunday, January 9. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.