Adrift in The New Century at GableStage
The New Century will be a gay one, or so Paul Rudnick seems to suggest. His play's three central characters — a Jewish mother of three sodomites, the self-proclaimed Gayest Man In The World, and a crafts-obsessed woman from Decatur whose gay son died of AIDS — are old-century in the extreme. They grapple with social mores and demographic facts that are changing too quickly to understand. Gracelessly, heartwarmingly, they succeed. The New Century is a confusing place, but a good one.
The first and better half of the play comprises three monologues from these characters, and taken alone they're great theater. Rudnick, who is very gay, is an ironist deeply in love with his targets. (Take a look at his "Shouts and Murmurs" column from last week's New Yorker, in which he forces us to like and sympathize with a homophobic Mormon.) For these characters he begins with broad stereotypes that we're primed to laugh at — judgmental Jewish mum, aging queen, tacky Midwesterner — and personifies them until we're ashamed of our own stereotyping.
Like Rudnick, we fall in love with them. I can picture the author hunched over his Selectric in a tchotchke-filled, windowless office nook in the Village, delighting in his own virtuosity. I can also picture him completing that third monologue, going out for a latte, and panicking: Now what?
It's a question with no good answer. The play's last 45 minutes are the product of a creative engine running on fumes. They are strained and inessential, neither worth seeing nor thinking about. I won't discuss them further.
Instead, I'm going to think only of those monologues. Helene Nadler (Patti Gardner), the Jewish mother, is speaking at a support group: Friends and Family of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Creatively Questioning People and Others — to which she playfully amends "of color, with colds," skewering an all-inclusive PC sensibility to which, we discover, she actually subscribes. Her hair is a platinum blond bob, her face is set and tough-looking, and she wants the assembled to know that she is the most accepting, the most loving mother ever to enter this hall. Shortly after her eldest daughter came out as a lesbian, her middle son declared he was transgendered — and, after his M-to-F transition, came out as a lesbian herself. Her youngest son is a gay slave with an overwhelming interest in scatology.
Most mortal parents would permafreak if their entire brood turned out so "LGBT," but not Nadler. She prefers to make the best of things. On cue, the back wall of the set snaps open to reveal her youngest, decked out in assless chaps and a gimp mask. Yanking his leash, she crows: "Clean your room!" "Yes, master," he says. Nadler yanks again: "Yes Mother!" "Y-y-yes... Mother!" Turning to us, grinning, Nadler says: "I love this!"
But she doesn't, not completely. Both Rudnick's peculiar genius and Gardener's massive heart are evident in every inflection of her performance here. This allows us to see three things simultaneously: that Nadler really believes what she's saying; that she desperately loves her children; and that beneath her mother-lioness devotion to them, she is terrified that all of this is bad and wrong.
The self-proclaimed Gayest Man In The World, Mr. Charles (John Felix), sounds like Liberace and looks like Rod Roddy. Felix is decked out fabulously: soft blue eye makeup, subtle pink lipstick, and so much pastel on his leisure suits it's as if they turned Wes Anderson's career into a garment. He addresses us from his biweekly 4 a.m. cable TV program, assisted by his "ward," a young man named Shane (Daniel Landon, who also played assless-chaps David), whom he picked up a few weeks ago. Mr. Charles' show is devoted to explaining a sensibility that is rapidly fading from the world — that of the refined and tasteful androgyne. It's a dying breed. He was voted out of New York for being too gay. He is given to sudden, uncontrollable Nelly Breaks, the kind modern, normalized gays simply can't abide.
The New Century's themes of loss, unrootedness, and uncertainty come together most clearly and poignantly in the person of Barbara Ellen (Sally Bondi), the Midwesterner. As a member of an urban and relatively hip audience, I was primed to laugh at her most of all. She is deep, deep, deep into crafts — if it's tacky and involves glue, or fabric, or whatever, she'll make it. As created by Bondi, whose talent and subtlety are apparently boundless, she comes off initially as a cartoon. No one in the real world is this innocent.
But she is no cartoon. There is something a little scary in the way she rattles off the many variants and materials of her crafty folk art — papier-mache, macramé, human hair — and just doesn't stop. The audience laughs, but she doesn't notice. She just stares ahead, face set and serious, allowing for two or three seconds to separate each of her words as though every one were of vital, totemic importance: "Paper marbling." "Sparkleballery!" This lady is serious. And when she explains the latest use to which she's put her crafts-making skills — creating her dead son's panel on the AIDS quilt — you realize that, for her, crafts are no mere hobby. They are what she has left. "I'm not sure I believe in God anymore," she says, long after the audience has given up trying to laugh at her. "But I believe in cute. And glue." And she smiles.
The New Century could just as easily be titled Like a Rolling Stone. It is a portrait of good, smart people struggling to orient themselves in an era unmoored from old, reliable constants of heterosexuality, family, and faith. All alone, on their own, with no direction home, they study themselves: What is my life to be in this brave new world? Under these conditions, is happiness possible? How does it feel? Rudnick's answer: Scary. And wonderful.
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