Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Regrets Only: ... And Now for the Neil Simon Side of Paul Rudnick
Also see Bob's review of Measure for Measure
Last week, the Theatre Project at Union County College presented Rudnick's Valhalla, a clever and entertaining throwback to the heyday of Charles Ludlam and his bacchanalian Ridiculous Theatre Company. Now, Premiere Stages, located at Kean University, is presenting Rudnick's latest, Regrets Only, a (conservatively) joke-a-minute Neil Simon-esque, stylistically mainstream comedy. Although both authors deal with personal relationships, Simon's best plays seem strictly personal, whereas Rudnick's concerns are more social and political.
Still, Rudnick's topic is hardly mainstream. For months, since the death of his life partner, famed dress designer Hank Hadley has remained withdrawn from his normal social pursuits. Tonight, Hank arrives at the luxurious Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment of his best friend, Tibby McCullough, and her constitutional attorney husband, Jack. Hadley is prepared for a night of society party hopping. On the scene is the McCullough's daughter, Spencer, also a hot shot attorney. Spencer announces that she has become engaged to a much older, super wealthy investment banker and she intends to have a St. Patrick's wedding with "the whole works."
Hank feels betrayed when Jack proudly tells him about being asked by President (George W.) Bush to come up with an iron clad definition which would limit marriage to being between a man and a woman. Jack is thrilled by the honor of the request and asks the willing Spencer to accompany him as his assistant. Only Tibby is simpatico to Hank's objections, but she is not willing to stand up in opposition to Jack and Spencer. As the first act curtain descends, Hank now feels that he is not being treated as a friend and equal, but rather as an entertainer by his old friends. He declines to join them for their planned night out.
In the first act, Rudnick peppers us with one joke after another. Most are very funny, but they are scattershot as Rudnick seems not to care whether or not they are relevant to the action or consistent with character. Omnipresent (constantly shuffling in and out) is the wise cracking maid whose every word, gesture and movement is tied to a gag (comedienne Jackie Hoffman played this role at the Manhattan Theatre Club). The maid opens with an Irish brogue, followed hard on by a French accent and then a Cockney one. When asked why the accents, she responds, "I'm tired of being the only white, Jewish maid in New York." Well, Rudnick's Myra Kesselman may be Jewish, but her prototype reached its apogee over sixty years ago in the screen performances of the resplendently Irish Patsy Kelly.
There are sharp, funny jokes. When Hank sets up an adversarial session with Jack, Myra says that she wants to be the judge. She is asked, "Did you go to college?, do you know the Constitution?, do you know anything about human rights or liberty?, do you understand human nature?". After Myra answers "No" to each question, Spenser tells her, "Then you can be the President, but you can't be the judge." There are funny jokes which you may find in questionable taste. When Tibby tells Hank that a party that they planning to attend is to raise funds for multiple amputees, Hank asks, "Will there be dancing?". And there are the kind of bitchy, mean-spirited preach-to-the-choir jokes which undermine the cause, as when Tibby says, "I've never understood deeply religious people. I respect them. But they pray and they pray, and they still look like that."
The first (of two) scene in the second act is the heart of Regrets Only, and it is a corker. It is four months later, and Spencer is trying to make final arrangements for her wedding, but she cannot reach her florist, music coordinator or travel agent. Shortly Hank arrives and informs one and all (including Tibby's dotty mother, Marietta) that, sparked by his anger at Jack and Spencer, he has organized gays to protest their inability to marry by not showing up at their jobs. There are more funny jokes in this extended scene than there are over the entire length of most comedies. Even better, these jokes all relate to the topic at hand. This boycott idea (re: American blacks) was explored in Douglas Ward Turner's 1965 one act, "Day of Absence" and has proven impractical when actually attempted, but it is presented by Rudnick with such sharp and satiric good humor that it plays like a breath of fresh air. My notes contain almost two dozen uproarious jokes from this scene including over a half dozen about the theatre. I'll share one here. Marietta bemoans all the cancelled theatre performances. Asked "what about Matthew Broderick?", she responds, "He wanted to go on, but he was afraid of Nathan Lane."
It seems inexplicable given the high powered cast that performed the play at the Manhattan Theatre Club last fall, but I enjoyed Premiere Stages' Regrets Only more. Particularly outstanding is the warm and casually dignified performance of Douglas Scott Allen as Hank Hadley. Allen conveys the hurt and mystification that Hank feels with small delicate strokes. His recounting of his relationship with and feelings toward his late partner has a deeply human, universal feel which transcends specific sexuality. His Hank is the center and anchor of the play.
Caryn Rosenthal's Tibby rises to the level established by Allen. As Hank cajoles the old Tibby, his platonic soul mate, to come out from under her shell and the dominance of her family and take a stand for him, Rosenthal radiates with the spirit which Tibby had lost in her years of unfulfilling marriage. It is with these two performances that this production casts a warm glow which adds layers beyond the rich humor.
Patrick Boll and Melissa Miller lend solid support as Jack and his daughter Spencer. Sheila Head proves a fine comedienne as Myra Kesselman. Kathleen Butler is very funny in the very funny, wise cracking role of Marietta. Marietta "knows" that gay men aren't ready for marriage ("I've been married to five gay men, and they're not ready").
Director Ted Sluberski has elicited fine performances from his cast, capturing all the humor and warmth of the play. Although budgetary limitations, prevent set designer Kennon Rothchild from fully capturing the luxury of the penthouse apartment setting, his large and dimensional set is adequate. Karen Lee Hart's costumes are first rate all the way. Her powder blue wedding gown for Spencer and Tibby's complementary gown are gorgeous and flattering.
Paul Rudnick may not write the best structured plays, but he is certainly one of the funniest, if not the funniest, writer that we have in the American theatre. Of the two Rudnick plays currently running not very far apart in New Jersey, the more mainstream Regrets Only is more likely to appeal to audiences taking their first theatre journey with him.
Now which theatre is going to be the first to bring Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told to New Jersey.
Regrets Only continues performances (Thursday - Saturday 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through July 29, 2007 at the Premiere Stages Wilkins Theatre on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083. Box office: 908-7377469; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages.
Regrets Only by Paul Rudnick; directed by Ted Sluberski