At parties, we seek out witty people because they are the ones who can make us giggle — especially when the night is young, the quips are darting, and the drinks are fresh. But eventually, the punch lines begin to lose their fizz and everyone starts looking for their coats.
That's the feeling one gets from The New Century, now at Dobama Theatre. There are few funnier people alive than playwright Paul Rudnick (author of the plays I Hate Hamlet and Jeffrey), but this work feels carelessly stitched together. And the second act is simply bewildering, but not in an amusing way.
As the title suggests, the three virtual monologues that make up the first act are putatively arranged around the turn of Y2K, showing how different people are adjusting to a new era with some of the same old problems. Of course, Rudnick has a particular interest in issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity, and those topics are explored in fearless and often hilarious detail.
The evening gets off to a fine start as Helene Nadler, a mother from Massapequa, Long Island, stands to address a meeting of P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C. & O (Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned, and Others). Helene is a triple threat in that she has a lesbian daughter she named Leslie ("What was I thinking?!"), a six-foot, three-inch transgendered lesbian son, and another gay son who's a leather-clad, leash-bedecked bottom (and we're not talking here about a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream).
As performed with pitch-perfect timing (albeit with a fluctuating Long Island accent) by Jean Kauffman, Helene is a game trooper patrolling the new sexual frontier. Armed with a brash exterior but lots of love, the brand-name-loving Helene shows how she's adjusting to her outré brood. (Referring, for instance, to her leathered and zippered son, she notes tenderly: "He's like a Coach bag.")
And even though her daughter's haircut makes her look "like a 12-year-old Amish boy," Helene cares for her and her partner. Kauffman turns what could be a tired stereotype into a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a parent dealing with the unexpected.
It's impossible to describe how fast and furious the jokes come at you in the Helene sketch and in the third vignette, which features a craft-crazy woman named Barbara Ellen Diggs. Again, this is a familiar type: the gal who knits doorknob cozies, constructs scrapbook pages until they bulge, and has never met a sweater appliqué she doesn't adore.
Amid all the glitter and smiling pink felt kittens, Babs also has some darkness in her life since her gay son recently died of AIDS. Although Rudnick tends to overdo the crafty side of Barbara (a litany of her projects sounds like an index from the history of crafts), he neatly and believably makes the turn into her personal devastation.
As Barbara, Molly McGinnis captures touching yet amusing poignancy when the topic turns to the AIDS quilt: She says it "looks like a cemetery designed by The Ladies Home Journal." And she finds, in her encounter with Christo's well-known fabric installation in Central Park, a reason to move on.
The middle scene in Century's first act revolves around Mr. Charles, a bigger-than-life gay man who glories in his utter, unapologetic flamingness. Wearing the world's fakest-looking blond wig and sporting a rainbow collision of colors, Mr. Charles is what we imagine all construction workers picture when they think of gays.
But this is a stereotype trap from which the playwright never manages to escape. Sure, Mr. Charles is sort of fun and his boy-toy Shane, played by Steven J. West, is a stud (and clearly well endowed, which we learn during a moment of gloriously gratuitous frontal nudity). Plus, the barrage of zingers fly freely ("How can you tell if a man attending a play is gay? He keeps his playbill. And he's awake.") But as a character, he feels old and played, even though Greg Violand lisps and limp-wrists it for all he's worth.
Director Scott Plate and all the actors are put adrift by the weirdness of Act Two, when all the above characters meet cute in a hospital maternity ward (huh?) and thrash their way to a corny conclusion.
Yet even with the disappointing ending, you'll have a hard time finding more laughs in any two-hour period than you'll get from The New Century.
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