Paul Rudnick’s Rude Entertainment for the esteemed Drama Dept. at Greenwich House Theater is like an enjoyably gay version of a Friars Club Roast. Whizzing through an evening that lasts just an hour and a half, his three one-act sketches, or playlets, celebrate the incorrect, outrageous glories of old-style queens, wickedly parody modern gay couples who adopt cute little children and, in moving quite seriously onto the thorny subject of saints and sinners, finally take risky, malevolent aim at Mr. Rudnick’s own audience.
In my experience, never shoot the audience; always the pianist. But like all roast masters, our campy hero goes too far, and he goes wrong. But let’s not spoil things quite so soon. Good taste has never been Mr. Rudnick’s concern. Nor shall it be ours, until it must.
The opening sketch, “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach,” is an extremely funny throwback to the retro age of La Cage aux Folles , when gays-Mr. Rudnick is saying-were proudly gay, not “assimilated” or passing for straight. The middle-aged Mr. Charles is the host of his own cable show entitled Too Gay , which can be found on channel 47 at
4 a.m. on alternate Thursdays, in between Adult Interludes and Stretching with Sylvia .
Mr. Charles of Palm Beach sits in the studio on a gilded, throne-like chair, dressed in a canary-yellow jacket, lime-green trousers and plum espadrilles, with a touch of mascara and a charming blond hairpiece. We would say he’s a stereotype, but you’ve already guessed.
He reads from a letter asking the question: “What causes homosexuality?”
“I do,” he replies.
And so the laughter begins to roll easily from the outset, particularly as Mr. Charles is played by Peter Bartlett, a relaxed riot in everything he does. “Sometimes, for a lark,” Mr. Charles continues cheerfully, “I like to stroll through maternity wards, to upset new parents.” He was asked to leave New York. (“There was a vote.”) When upset, he has a “nelly break,” babbling in gay English known as Shebonics.
Mr. Charles has a devoted companion and ward, a low-rent hunk in a tight tank top named Shane (the excellent Neal Huff), who appears in various costumes from time to time. “Danke Shane,” says Mr. Charles, who goes on to perform the entire history of American gay theater in 60 seconds. “Jimmy isn’t like the other boys …. I’m so sick and ashamed, Karen! … I am what I am! … But Doctor, what’s wrong with David? … Let the great work begin! Let the great work begin, part two!”
The Mr. Charles letters are the quickfire thing. “Can you always tell if someone is gay?” another letter asks.
“Well, I can,” Mr. Charles replies sweetly. “There’s always a giveaway. Sometimes it’s just a glance on a street corner, or a slight moan during oral sex. But I do have a question. When an English person comes out, is anyone really surprised? Did anyone say, ‘Oh no-not Ian McKellen? ‘”
You see what I mean by the roast atmosphere, though. “Can gay people change?”
“Of course. For dinner.”
“Dear Mr. Charles, what do you think of the Boy Scouts?”
“I want one.”
Mr. Rudnick falters a little when his endearing dinosaur hero of high camp concludes with a hissy fit about modern gay life earning its place at the table by showing that “we can hold jobs, go to church and raise children, just like everyone else.” But Mr. Charles, the Quentin Crisp of Palm Beach, is for gayness, not sameness.
“Oh, there have been men, and boys, and Wedgewood,” he confides, before exiting blowing defiant kisses. “But being gay-there’s a romance!”
The second piece, “Very Special Needs,” is a timely Rudnick brainstorm. It’s a theater-of-the-absurd sketch about Timmy and Trent and their adopted child, Katinka, who wants to be renamed Tribeca. Timmy, the sentimental one, is a Manhattan men’s-wear designer, and Trent, the more realistic one, is a cutting-edge architect who isn’t sure they’re ready to adopt yet.
“Of course we are!” Timmy replies. “It’s all I’ve been dreaming about! I mean, all our friends, almost every gay couple, they all have babies!”
“Those are small dogs,” Trent replies dryly.
Timmy wants to adopt a child with special needs to show they’re not just selfish and shallow. “A baby can solve everything,” he explains. “Look at Mitchell and Todd. They have never been happier ever since they adopted that perfect little girl from Honduras.”
“She’s their housekeeper!” Trent protests.
Unfortunately, their adopted one, Katinka, turns out to be a maladjusted peasant from Slovakia pretending to be an adorable child. But Katinka is really the thirtysomething head of the adoption agency whose special needs are tender, loving care and a great apartment.
“Are you on medication?” a suspicious Trent asks her after a while.
“Not yet,” Katinka replies.
In its mad, farcical way, “Very Special Needs” is a comic portrait of desperation. But Mr. Rudnick’s surface of things suit it better. Peter Bartlett as Trent and Neal Huff as Timmy sparkle again. Harriet Harris is fun as Katinka, though I preferred her splendid Eleanor Roosevelt in the big sketch that followed.
With “On the Fence,” Mr. Rudnick is more troublingly comic, savage even, and potentially brilliant. It takes place in a no-man’s land between life and death where we see Matthew Shepard left to die, tied to a fence by the roadside in Wyoming. Enter Eleanor Roosevelt-defining herself as no angel, but more of a saint-to help him to the other side. But sweet, naïve Matthew doesn’t want to go. He believes he’s still alive.
It’s a disturbing, nightmarish premise of enormous potential, a dark version of It’s a Wonderful Life without the redeeming Clarence. To be sure, Mr. Rudnick can’t resist a few good jokes. Matthew asks Eleanor if she was really this big lesbian. “You’ve just been talking to my upstairs maid, Bridget, haven’t you?” she replies defensively. “Just because she walked in on me and my dear friend Lorna Hickock, naked in the Lincoln Bedroom, performing cunnilingus. Well, it was Christmas, there was mistletoe, it’s a White House tradition!”
But Mr. Rudnick has in mind a serious moral debate about gay persecution and
token concern, about rainbow angel images and types, good versus evil, forgiveness and unredeeming hate. Such themes are all too shatteringly relevant today. But I’m afraid that Mr. Rudnick trivializes them with the introduction of an unlikely third character-a showbiz Satan in the billowing shape and form of Paul Lynde of Bye Bye Birdie and Hollywood Squares.
We have the martyr Matthew Shepard, the saint Eleanor Roosevelt-and the what ? The queen in a kimono (who seems to be a reincarnation of Mr. Charles of Palm Beach). Mr. Rudnick makes it difficult for us to appreciate what’s at stake in serious questions of life and death when all the ghost of Paul Lynde cares about is shooting his agent.
But worse is to come. Our dramatist of high camp in search of profundity turns Matthew Shepard into a figure of hate to prove some muddled notion of “justice.” In a touch of Pirandello, the unholy trio of Matthew, Paul and Eleanor end up by turning guns on the audience to kill people at random. Exactly why they’re threatening us with death escaped me. Mr. Rudnick keeps his humor, but he appears to have lost his head.
Whether the scene was written before Sept. 11, I know not. Nor should shock tactics be banned in the theater in a form of self-censorship. It isn’t necessarily that the gun threat is tactless, or empty-headed. It’s more that, in its momentarily threatening way, Mr. Rudnick has created a foolish act of emotional terrorism that proves zilch.
They shoot-but the guns turn out to be blank. Why? The dramatist offers a shaky, barren moral in the words of Paul Lynde, of all sour second-raters: ” … maybe the world is divided into two groups: the people who can kill other people. And the people who only wish they could.” Which leads to an even glibber one: “Perhaps the most that anyone can hope for is to want to be good.”
The wit of Paul Rudnick is a pleasure, his wisdom another story.