Paul Rudnick is a witty man. In fact, no, he is a very witty man. I met him a few times at various New York theaters in the late 1980s, and each time he looked like he was on his way to a costume party, dressed as either the young Oscar Wilde or as Dorian Gray (is there a difference? not sure). This might have seemed pretentious in someone else, but not with Paul Rudnick, to whom quips and bon mots come as naturally as sports metaphors do for the average male. And, honestly, he probably is as close to our own homegrown Oscar Wilde as we are likely to get.
Which is both what is really good and what is really bad about his new play, BIG NIGHT, getting its world premiere now at the Kirk Douglas. Rudnick has been all over town lately talking about how the mass murders at the Pulse nightclub “inspired” his play, because of the way it happened on the night before the 2016 Tony Awards. “I remember thinking that that particular combination of showbiz celebration and human tragedy was very interesting to me as a writer and seemed like a high stakes and also comic situation,” Rudnick told The Jewish Journal.
The killing of 49 gay people – 0r 26 LGBT youth in the play – is “comic”? Really? Pray tell, how is that so?
The conceit of Rudnick’s play is that a gay actor of around 40 has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting actor, and the big night has finally arrived. Early on we meet Cary (Max Jenkins) – probably the best-written character and best performance in the play – and his banter with Michael (Brian Hutchinson), Cary’s client and the nominated actor, establishes the showbiz-bubble world that they live in.
All good so far. While the barbs are fired at familiar targets – Hollywood folks are “superficial”! Hold the presses! – there is still lots of fun to be had, staring in the mirror at their (and our) narcissism. Soon they are joined in the not very convincingly 21st century hotel suite (I half-expected Sammy Davis Jr to spring out from behind the sofa) by Michael’s transgender niece (Tom Phelan) and glamorously sexy mom (Wendie Malick), and the jollity continues. A few surprises ensue, and I wouldn’t dream of divulging them, but they did make me wonder about casting Ms Malick as the mom. Don’t get me wrong – she’s a star, and very funny in everything she does, from Dream On to Just Shoot Me! to Hot in Cleveland. But the character here is a nurturer, and that doesn’t really suit Malick’s persona. I can think of a half-dozen actresses (with Linda Lavin at the top of the list) who would make this a much deeper and richer character, which is something this play dearly needs.
Because when the tragic events unfold, as they do, it’s not just Hollywood folk who end up seeming superficial. The characters in this play, who have mostly been lots of fun to hang out with, become oddly reduced to one dimension, and fits of melodrama suddenly break out onstage like a disease that everyone becomes stricken with at once.
I’m sure this play will end up in New York, where it will doubtless have its admirers. There is, yes, lots to admire in the brilliance of Paul Rudnick’s humor in general. But his attempt to turn his gift towards the serious clanks off the backboard like a Carmelo Anthony 3-point brick (said the hetero critic).
Ten minutes into the performance I saw of HEAD OF PASSES at the Taper, I was seized by an odd and discomforting feeling of deja vu. This play reminded me uncannily of something else I’d seen before. Here was the house in a storm and all these characters running around saying things that I couldn’t quite make any sense of. There was the man running around with the potato salad gone bad, and there was Phylicia Rashad in the middle of it all, appealing to the Lord as the events around her went from bad to worse. But it wasn’t until the spectacular stage design apocalypse at the end of the Act that I realized – I’d seen this play before, 18 months ago, at the Public Theatre in NYC! That’s why it seemed so familiar! But why did it take me so long to figure it out?
It’s not memory – that hasn’t started a downhill slide yet. I do see a lot of plays – something like 400 in the last two years alone – and that was definitely a factor. But no, I think it has to do first with the title – “Head of Passes” – is that the most forgettable title ever? And I have no idea what it means. I’ve seen the play twice now, and it’s no clearer. But no, the real reason is that nothing that happens in Act I has any emotional staying power. And as a friend of mine remarked, you can see Eugene O’Neill’s style here and Tennessee Williams’s style there, and August Wilson‘s style everywhere. I’m not saying that Tarell McCraney plagiarized anything, simply that his playwright’s voice is drowned out by those of his influences in Act I, which I think is why I didn’t realize right away that I’d seen this play before. The writing comes across as generic, and frankly, the direction by Tina Landau doesn’t help matters by failing to find standout dramatic moments for the audience to hang onto. It all becomes a jumble of bad news, a litany of misery, in which the outwardly affluent family is beset with problems that can no longer remain hidden. And they don’t.
Which brings us to Act II, when the real play emerges. Though not before more emotionally-messy dramaturgy, when the characters leave an old woman in a crumbling house by herself without putting up much of an argument. But once she is left alone, Ms Rashad’s Shelah wrestles with God in a compulsively watchable way, giving a performance that can genuinely be called a legend in the making. And yes, it’s thrilling, a brilliant and soul-stirring turn. It’s tempting to read more into Ms Rashad’s performance, to see her self-lacerating monologue as relating to her private misgivings about her public support for her friend Bill Cosby. But again, I’m conjuring that out of thin air and only wish it was true.
[NOTE: my manager found this reference to Cosby offensive and urged me to remove it. This being Yom Kippur, I’m certainly not out to offend anyone – but being myself a victim of sexual abuse, I can’t help having the fantasy that Ms Rashad is secretly doing her own atoning. Critics are allowed to have fantasies, aren’t they?]
What is absolutely self-evident is that Phylicia Rashad is one of our greatest actors, and if you want to see her reach unforgettable heights in a heartfelt but mostly-forgettable play, then you need to see “Head of Passes” – or is it “Bed of Asses”? “”Spread of Gasses”? “Ted’s New Glasses”? – before it closes on October 22nd.
And, oh yeah, that set is pretty great too. Kudos to set designer G.W. Mercier. That’ couldn’t have been easy to make happen, but it serves as the perfect metaphor for this imploding family.