BWW Review: BIG NIGHT Starts Humorously but Changes Direction After a Senseless Attack
In a town so obsessed with movie stardom, it's no wonder Paul Rudnick's new play BIG NIGHT has a built-in hometown audience of not only actors but others in the industry who long to be rewarded for their efforts with the highest honor of all, winning an Oscar. Its world premiere, directed by Tony winner Walter Bobbie, continues onstage through October 8, 2017 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the Heart of Screenland, just around the corner from studios where so many great movies have been made.
Master satirist Paul Rudnick blends a deep humanity with a honed sense of hilarity in this powerful and funny play about family and fame, the personal and the political, and the drive to stand up and speak out. But it is also one that promotes a very progressive political stance on human rights, especially within the gay community, with much of the dialogue presented as if they are soapbox speeches meant to sway the listener to take action. But given our current political circumstances, there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to take a stand and speak out to make the world a better and more equal place for everyone.
BIG NIGHT takes place on the night of the Oscars with long-working actor turned Oscar nominee, Michael (Brian Hutchison), preparing in his Beverly Hills Hotel suite for the biggest night of his life. But there is no way he could possibly know how much his life will profoundly change over the course of the evening, and not just because he wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The award almost seems secondary as the journey he and his entourage experience that night creates the anxiety, heartbreak, humor and terror soon to rule the evening as well as their lives.
On John Lee Beatty's gorgeous set, we first meet Michael's new agent Cary (Max Jenkins), who's so gay he's got fifteen pairs of eyeglass frames (and he doesn't even wear glasses), and seems most interested in his client winning the Oscar for the increase in fee revenue it will bring to the agency. Michael is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his political activist boyfriend Austin (Luke MacFarlane), due after a stop at the L.A. LGBT Center's youth Oscar party. Soon to arrive is Michael's transgender nephew Eddie née Erica (Tom Phelan) who encourages his openly gay uncle to make his acceptance speech about promoting gay rights. And while Michael is willing, his agent discourages him from turning the evening into his own political statement since that will be all anyone will remember about the evening.
The action picks up with the arrival of Michael's sister Esther, the absolutely fabulous Wendie Malick, impeccably dressed to the nines by William Ivey Long. As she struts across the stage acting as the ultimate Jewish mother attempting to take care of everyone, especially the catering, she soon shares some surprising news with her brother and son - the new love of her life attending the ceremony with her is none other than her lesbian lover Eleanor, a larger-than-life black woman and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, portrayed with humor and grace by Kecia Lewis, who ultimately proves to be the most level-headed of the bunch.
When Austin finally arrives, it's obvious he has been through quite an ordeal as a senseless shooting has taken place at the L.A. LGBT Center and many innocent people have been shot in front of his eyes. Eddie immediately logs on to follow the story which is described in gruesome detail, no doubt bringing back visions of the horrendous act of terror at a gay nightclub in Orlando last year. The play then changes momentum from the light-hearted comedy to a much darker tale of senseless, personal loss. It's obviously a very relevant political topic right now, and perhaps the overall reason Rudnick wrote the play is to promote the need for equal human rights for all. It just seems a bit forced, although we did find ourselves laughing quite often, even in the darkest moments, due to many brilliantly written one-liners.
Kudos to the actors who so realistically present the characters, especially in the aftermath of the horror-filled attack. And while the play may need a little refinement in its flow, I think those of us who work in the industry, as well as those who wish they did, will appreciate the often humorous look inside what goes on behind the scenes on Oscar night when things go in both the best and worst possible ways.
Tickets for BIG NIGHT range from $25-$70, and are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center downtown, or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Three hours free parking across Culver Blvd. in the City Hall underground parking lot with validation.
Photos by Craig Schwartz and Luke Fontana