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The New Century

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The New Century
Linda Lavin.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The 1900s, with their explosions of rights for African Americans and women, advanced the question: Can tolerance ever be taken far enough? But if Paul Rudnick has anything to say about it, the 2000s are rapidly evolving around another issue: Can you take tolerance too far? Judging from the new collection of short plays Rudnick calls The New Century, the answer is yes.

Thank goodness. The dangers of entering the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center today are not social, but physical - laughing as loud and as hard as you're likely to here could test the leniency of even the most generous health-insurance plans.

At least Rudnick and his laser-precise director, Nicholas Martin, have an excellent justification for taunting the HMOs: Now that America has thrown off the first shackles of its latent homophobia, it just needs to iron out the details. Specifically, those still-tender bonds between children and parents, the former who want to do and be whatever they choose, and the latter who want to let them - but sometimes need just a bit of coaxing.

Take Helene Nadler (Linda Lavin), the center of the first play, "Pride and Joy." Speaking before the Massapequa chapter of Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, The Transgendered, The Questioning, The Curious, The Creatively Concerned And Others, this elegant, sixtysomething Jewish woman looks and sounds like a tower of fortitude. At first prim, firm, and in crisp control of her words and feelings, she describes with only a hint of brittleness how her children came out: her daughter as a lesbian, her eldest son as a gay woman trapped in a straight man's body, and her youngest son as a gay man with fetishes for leather and scatology.

Helene says she's come to prove she's "the most accepting, the most tolerant, and the most loving mother of all time," but as she relates her family's breakdown and reconstruction, it becomes increasingly obvious it's herself she's trying to convince. Maintaining her brick-hewn, Prada-wrapped fašade, she struggles to reconcile her expectations of her children's lives with the lives they're actually living. "'I gave birth to three perfect children,'" she recalls telling her husband one night, "'what did you do to them?'"

The New Century
Jayne Houdyshell.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Barbara Ellen Diggs (Jayne Houdyshell) - of Decatur, Illinois, and the third play, "Crafty" - lost her son in a much more real way: to AIDS. She won't name the disease, but she can't even bring herself to say he's dead: "Maybe that's why euphemisms got invented," she muses, "not because people are ashamed, but because - they hate the real word too much."

She learned how to embrace her son's life and death through her own particular passion: handicrafts. Her work includes toaster tuxedos, formal gowns for cats, Christmas sweatshirts, and oh so much more. But that hobby leads to a panel in the AIDS quilt, sock monkeys for hospital patients, and communion with usually indignant New Yorkers over Christo's art installation The Gates and the losses they endured on September 11, 2001.

Both Lavin and Houdyshell find in their grieving mothers a soulfulness that captures their hilarious eccentricities without sacrificing their humanity. Lavin's scene is angled more toward comedy and Houdyshell's toward a more serious resonance, but each captures in its subject a warm and winning resilience that sends our still-young century - of history and of gay theatre - off to a delicious start.

The New Century
Mike Doyle and Peter Bartlett.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The second play tastes somewhat staler. In "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach," Peter Bartlett assumes the guise of the hyper-flamboyant title character, resigned to Florida public-access television to spread the word of the screaming-queen sector to heteros and closet cases everywhere. Armed only with his (ahem) ward, Shane (Mike Doyle), who's given to romping about in military fatigues, superhero getups, and less at his employer's whim (the delightful costumes are by William Ivey Long), Mr. Charles epitomizes the legendary prancing demagogue, down to his all-consuming "nelly fits" and ability to turn people gay with a glance.

If Bartlett wears Mr. Charles's neon-drenched ensembles like a second skin, his portrait of every terrified straight's nightmare longs for the blood and guts that vivify Helene and Barbara. Bartlett and Rudnick have been kicking around this incisive routing of the stereotype-filing mindset for a decade, but its links to Helene and Barbara's stories (Mr. Charles's "mentorship" of Shane, his performing his magic on a baby in the audience) are tangential at best, making it the most ill-fitting section of the evening.

This is only exacerbated in the last play, a contrived (if amusing) look at what happens when all the characters meet and revel in the fact that they aren't really from different worlds after all - they're from the same one. Rudnick, who specializes in rapid-fire comedies constructed around tight themes (Jeffrey, Valhalla, last season's Regrets Only), takes too long to state this outright.

He needn't bother. When Helene says of her children, "maybe all they're doing is finding very individual, very new, and very irritating ways - not to be lonely," or Barbara admits, "I don't know if I believe in God anymore. But I do believe in cute," nothing more need be said - or danced, as The New Century does in its final minutes. The women's pain and the laughter and emotion it generates is a much more powerful unifying force.


The New Century
Through June 8
Running time 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge