Are We Different Yet?

Published in: July-August 2008 issue.


The New Century
Written by Paul Rudnick
Directed by Nicholas Martin
The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center


FOUR FROTHY VIGNETTES, perhaps more properly defined as character studies, are strung together in this new comedy by Paul Rudnick, which I saw in a preview performance in New York. While AIDS and 9/11 are sometimes hovering on the periphery, sometimes presented in startling parallels, the author of Jeffrey (1993) and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (1998) keeps the tone light and the jokes rapid-fire.

Mike Doyle and Peter Bartlett
Mike Doyle and Peter Bartlett

The New Century presents a showcase for the extraordinary talents of Linda Lavin (who won a 2001 Tony award for best actress in Charles Busch’s Tale of the Allergist’s Wife). Her character Helene is surely the best spokesperson that pflag (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) could ever want. She’s a Long Island hausfrau who is deeply devoted to her designer lifestyle. “I love real Ralph,” she breathes fervently while chatting to the audience from her well-appointed living room. Each of her three adult children (and their partners) represents an aspect—some stereotypical, to be sure, but pretty funny nonetheless—of the various GLBT communities. Helene finds herself drawn ineluctably into these worlds in her determination to be the world’s greatest mother. Through her monologue, each of the children’s life stories becomes almost as vivid as Lavin’s own character.

Next to take the stage is Paul Bartlett in the person of Mr. Charles, who’s been self-exiled to Palm Beach upon concluding that he had become “too gay” for New York. The self-described “nelly moments” to which he’s prone may cause some cringes: Mr. Charles is living far from the queer academy’s idea of a post-gay world. His vignette is set in the studio of his cable access TV show where, during the wee hours, he reminisces about gay life before Stonewall. He’s also the eager promoter of on-air talent, his boy-toy and would-be entertainer, played by Mike Doyle, who also provides the play’s only moment of (rather gratuitous) nudity. Mr. Charles’ assistant, Christy Pusz, plays a young mother who seems ready, when the time comes, to step into her local pflag chapter’s presidency while pushing the stroller of her very precocious son, who will surely be having his own “nelly moments” as soon as he can talk.

The most completely developed character is Barbara Ellen (played by new-to-Broad-way actress Jayne Houdyshell), a Decatur, Illinois–based designer of kitschy handicrafts, many examples of which cover the stage. Surrounded by crocheted tissue box covers and appliquéd baby quilts, her character combines an uncompromising honesty with an exasperating naïveté. As she recounts the story of her son’s brief life and early death and of all his wonderful (gay) friends, she provides the play’s most dramatic moments, causing the audience to hover between laughter and tears, especially when she relives her meeting with a New Yorker who’d lost a loved one on 9/11.

In the final scene, where all the characters meet by chance at the maternity ward of a New York hospital, each is elated by news of the opening of a cut-rate department store called Century 21 (located in lower Manhattan), from which the play’s title is derived. Those of us non-New Yorkers who know Century 21 only as a large real estate chain will have another reason to visit the city, and this new play should definitely be on the list.