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The New Century: Enter Laughing

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The New Century

4 Plays by Paul Rudnick

Paul Daigneault, Director; Cristina Todesco, Scenic Design; Gail Astrid Buckley, Costume Design; Jeff Adelberg, Lighting Design; Nathan Leigh, Original Music & Sound Design; Dawn Schall, Production Stage Manager

Featuring: Emilie Battle, Kerry A. Dowling, Paula Plum, Robert Saoud, Bud Weber

Performances through February 14 at SpeakEasy Stage Company

Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com

In the midst of this winter seemingly without end, and certainly without a break, it was a real treat to sit in the cozy environs of the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts and just be entertained by the SpeakEasy Stage Company's New England premiere of The New Century by Paul Rudnick. A collection of four short gay-themed plays with quirky characters and lots of heart and humor, it only asks you to think a little as the stories are told, and to suspend your disbelief at the conclusion. I had a slight problem with the last part, but not enough to offset the warmth I felt from the rest of the show.

Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault laid the groundwork for success with choice casting of three of Boston's finest performers. Paula Plum, Robert Saoud, and Kerry A. Dowling show off their comedy chops as they lend their considerable talents to their individual segments of the program and work well together with two accomplished Boston Conservatory students, Bud Weber and Emilie Battle. SpeakEasy veterans all, the actors connect with the audience and provide extra dimension to their roles that might otherwise appear to be stereotypes.

The laughs start almost instantly in Pride and Joy when Helene Nadler (Plum) addresses the Massapequa chapter of the PLGBTQCCC&O* in a Long Island high school auditorium. This attractive and stylish woman lays claim to the title of most accepting, tolerant, loving (Jewish) mother of all time and proceeds to explain why. As she tells the coming out stories of her three children with a mix of disbelief, pride, and long-suffering love, Plum shows the dignity and sardonic wit that help Helene keep her balance. Clearly she has feelings about the hand she's been dealt (three-of-a-kind?), but Helene is a balabusta who wears her heart on her beautiful winter white coat sleeve even as she fires off Rudnick's masterful one-liners. Plum's timing is impeccable and organic, allowing her to respond in the moment to audience reactions with a "take" or an ad lib, eliciting additional laughs. When she proudly introduces her son, the doctor, dressed in black leather from hood to toe, it represents a stark metaphorical contrast to her totally white ensemble, but there is no gray area in the bond they share.

Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach takes place at a public access television station in Florida. Our host, Mr. Charles (Saoud) has been exiled from New York ("There was a vote...") for being too gay. He is the poster boy for the flamboyant gay icon, from his blond pompadour and purple neckerchief to his orange pants and flashy jewelry; from his high-pitched voice to his swaying gait; and from his frou-frou knockoff furnishings to his impeccable knowledge of musical theatre history. Saoud is over the top in his delicious portrayal of Charles, yet still manages to humanize him with true emotions, sharing both his gay pride and his feelings of rejection by the so-called mainstream community. Despite his own creeping suspicion that he is anachronistic, Charles is able to sashay on simply because he is having a grand time and being true to himself. That personal integrity is what makes this segment powerful, but rather than hammer home the point, Rudnick cleverly tickles us verbally and visually. Saoud is at his outrageous best in unscripted moments when Charles lapses into uncontrollable bursts called "Nellie breaks." For added eye candy, Charles' ward and lust interest Shane (Weber) prances around the set in various stages of dishabille, showing off his dance skills and his physique,** and Emilie Battle does what she can with the extraneous young mother Joann.

Barbara Ellen Diggs (Dowling) from Decatur, Illinois, tells her story in Crafty. Surrounded by her artistic creations, she explains that "crafts allow me to express myself, to create something worth dusting," and draws us in with her incessantly perky disposition. At first glance, she is somewhat clownish with her Dutch boy hairstyle, leopard headband, appliquéd vest, and craft fanaticism, but Dowling's portrayal oozes warmth and sincerity, making Barbara Ellen a genuinely likeable woman. When she shares that her son was gay and succumbed to AIDS, her journey to understanding and reaching out leads to some interesting parallels between the losses of that epidemic and the tragedy of 9/11. Rudnick uses Barbara Ellen to reflect on our shared humanity, despite what may be glaring differences on the surface, and to model ways that straight can connect with gay and East meet Midwest.

The New Century is the finale which challenges Rudnick to bring all of the parties together. While he modestly succeeds in finding their commonality as people who are positive and strong in the face of difficult, and sometimes tragic, life situations, it is contrived that they meet at all, never mind in a maternity ward of a Manhattan hospital. It is rich with metaphors about new life and the new century, rising from the ashes of altered families, dashed dreams, and collapsed monoliths, and it introduces non-New Yorkers to the bargain store Century 21 with its eternally blazing neon sign across from the World Trade Center site. However, only Helene has a legitimate reason to be there visiting her newborn grandchild and the presence of the others does not ring true. When they all wind up partying on cable tv, it's too absurd even for this broad comedy and I couldn't continue to suspend my disbelief. Challenge not met. Still, it was fun to watch them all dance to a throbbing beat under a disco ball and colored lights. As Isadora Duncan said, "To dance is to live," and this is a lively bunch.

With the strong performances and witty writing in this character driven play, the sets by Cristina Todesco are minimal, but utilitarian. Gail Astrid Buckley has a field day designing very pretty things...for Charles. Sound and lights add to the bright, crisp feel of the quick-paced show, performed without intermission. Having produced two of the playwright's earlier shows, Daigneault admits a personal appreciation for Rudnick's work and understands that he is mostly here to entertain. When the director chose to include The New Century in this season, he didn't know how bad the winter and the economy would be, or who would be the new president. Perhaps he was prescient, because we sure can use some good laughs and most of us are finding reason to hope.

 

*Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, The Transgendered, The Questioning, The Curious, The Creatively Concerned & Others

**Brief nudity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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