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The Naked Truth

Paul Rudnick is an utterly original humorist, but he keeps writing epilogues to other people's plays. If "Jeffrey" seemed like the lost fourth part of Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy," then "The Naked Truth"-- Rudnick's very funny and ultimately moving take on Manhattan socialites and the artists they love to pet -- may be viewed as a comic coda to John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation."

With:
Nan Bemiss ... Mary Beth Peil Cassandra Keefer ... Valarie Pettiford Alex DelFlavio ... Victor Slezak Bonnie Barstow/Sister Mary Loyola ... Cynthia Darlow Dan Barstow/Messenger/Father Middlebury ... Peter Bartlett Sissy Bemiss Darnley ... J. Smith Cameron Lynette Marshall ... Debra Messing

Paul Rudnick is an utterly original humorist, but he keeps writing epilogues to other people’s plays. If “Jeffrey” seemed like the lost fourth part of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” then “The Naked Truth”– Rudnick’s very funny and ultimately moving take on Manhattan socialites and the artists they love to pet — may be viewed as a comic coda to John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.”

True, Rudnick’s crackling humor — tied to an unconquerable (and highly commercial) middle-class sensibility and sentimentalism — has much more in common with Fierstein than

Guare. Yet for all the one-liners, “Jeffrey” was finally about how romance can survive in the age of AIDS.

“The Naked Truth,” on the other hand, would be about how art can survive in the age of AIDS, if it had any intention of taking itself seriously, which it doesn’t. Thus the comedy’s commercial prospects — a team led by Rudnick’s Hollywood sidekick, producer Scott Rudin, optioned it for transfer, most likely to a larger Off Broadway venue — are particularly good.

Nevertheless, there’s something slightly tired about “The Naked Truth.” We’ve been here before. Not just because the playfeatures a splendid performance by John Cunningham, who played a life-on-the-brink-of-financial disaster art dealer in “Six Degrees” and here plays a senator with a similar fear that his life and all the systems that hold it together are going to fall apart any second now.

Rudnick himself affectionately skewered socialites and their debutante daughters in “Jeffrey,” while it’s been open season on the art world for some time now. And the play’s loosen-up, recapture-your-love-of-life theme — well, “Barefoot in the Park,” anyone? “Zorba”?

We carp. “The Naked Truth” is peopled with characters who think vulva is a car, in which a lesbian ex-con suffers murderous compulsions –“viable transsocial violence”– triggered by bad French, in which a deb mistakes a photo of a black phallus as “a big lonely tree.””Is this a gay thing,” a character asks, “anal sex, whips and chains, humor?”

The first act is set in the studio of Alex DelFlavio (Victor Slezak), whose explicit photos make him an obvious stand-in for the late Robert Mapplethorpe, though the S&M couples Alex immortalizes tend to be suburban New Jersey parents.

Hours before a major museum retrospective of his work is to open, he’s visited by Nan Bemiss (Mary Beth Peil in a performance of exquisite grace and humor), dispatched by her husband, Pete (Cunningham), to have three of the most outrageous photos removed from the exhibition.

Instead, Alex convinces Nan to pose nude for him, in part as a way for her to get even with Pete, a philandering senator with presidential aspirations.

By the time Nan and Pete have their inevitable pre-gala confrontation, their married daughter Sissy (J. Smith Cameron in a delicious romp on Trisha Nixon) will have fallen for Cassandra (Valarie Pettiford), Alex’s felonious lesbian assistant (“Where will this lead,” Sissy wonders, “divorce, a custody battle, clogs?”); Pete’s white-trash mistress (Debra Messing) will have confessed that it’s Nan she’s always admired; and Nan herself will have been transformed from repressed, upper-class doormat to liberated gal, as evidenced by her slinky red silk gown and the fact that she’s wearing nothing underneath it.

OK, so it’s a formula as old as comedy itself, and “The Naked Truth” still wants for some fine-tuning before the next step.

Nevertheless, as with both “Jeffrey” and “I Hate Hamlet,” Rudnick’s work has plenty of heart along with the jokes; the only meanness in evidence comes from a hapless nun (Cynthia Darlow) given to uncontrollable outbursts of profanity, and the censorious priest (Peter Bartlett) trying to shut down the exhibit — extremely tiresome devices the play could do without.

Otherwise, Christopher Ashley once again sets Rudnick’s work at breakneck pace without sacrificing a single lovable line, while James Youmans pulls off one of the cleverest set changes ever on the handkerchief-sized WPA stage. The rest of the design credits are also up to the WPA’s high standard.

“The Naked Truth” pokes affectionate fun at certain tenets of accepted gay wisdom, but it is, at heart, a boulevard comedy.

For proof, one need only gaze at Alex’s photo of Nan, and at the stunned looks on the faces of everyone — including the dear creature herself — when it finally is unveiled at that surprising museum gala.

The Naked Truth

(WPA Theater, New York; 122 seats; $ 30 top)

Production: A WPA Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Christopher Ashley.

Creative: Sets, James Youmans; costumes, David Woolard; lighting, Donald Holder; sound; Mark Bennett; projections, Wendall K. Harrington; wigs and hair, David H. Lawrence. Artistic director, Kyle Renick; managing director, Lori Sherman. Opened June 16, 1994; reviewed June 15. Running time: 1 hour, 40 min.

Cast: Nan Bemiss ... Mary Beth Peil Cassandra Keefer ... Valarie Pettiford Alex DelFlavio ... Victor Slezak Bonnie Barstow/Sister Mary Loyola ... Cynthia Darlow Dan Barstow/Messenger/Father Middlebury ... Peter Bartlett Sissy Bemiss Darnley ... J. Smith Cameron Lynette Marshall ... Debra Messing

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