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Regrets Only

In the closing scene of "Regrets Only," the two principal characters muse on the Constitution's inalienable rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," before concurring, "It's so gay. … It's like a party invitation."

Cast:
Tibby McCullough - Christine Baranski Spencer McCullough - Diane Davis Hank Hadley - George Grizzard Myra Kesselman - Jackie Hoffman Marietta Claypoole - Sian Phillips Jack McCullough - David Rasche

In the closing scene of “Regrets Only,” the two principal characters muse on the Constitution’s inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” before concurring, “It’s so gay. … It’s like a party invitation.” Harnessing the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage and reducing its pros and cons into hit-or-miss punchline fodder, Paul Rudnick’s strained comedy is as guilty of stereotyping as the Upper East Siders it targets. That might not be quite so irritating if it didn’t also set back the cause of theatrical satire, squandering a talented cast and swanky production values on inferior material.

He may be no asset to gay activism, but Rudnick is a sharp humorist. However, while his full-length plays, screenplays and even his comic novels can be highly entertaining, he’s arguably at his best in short forms where his devotion to the one-two dynamic of setup-payoff is not required to support a more ambitious narrative frame.

Rudnick’s Shouts & Murmurs essays in the New Yorker (one titled “Intelligent Design” and another proposing a “Queer Eye” makeover on the Bush administration spring to mind), his scathingly subversive film criticism in the early Premiere columns of alter ego Libby Gelman-Waxner, and his one-acts, like “Pride and Joy,” a 2004 monologue for Jackie Hoffman, are hilarious examples of his campy wit distilled to its sparkling essence of multiple laughs per minute.

The enlistment of Hoffman in this lumpy new play only helps point up the inconsistency of style in both the writing and in Christopher Ashley’s stiff production. It starts out as contemporary drawing room comedy before stepping uncertainly into sitcom, slapstick, absurdism, screwball, you name it.

Wedged in the midst of all this is Hoffman performing a one-woman show with little connection to the rest of the play. As Myra, “the only white, Jewish maid in Manhattan,” she comes on at intervals to deliver her shtick, often in funny accents and hats. The other characters stop, listen, smile graciously and then resume the play when she exits. It’s cute the first couple of times, then you start to think, “Shouldn’t this shrill woman be stacking the dishwasher?”

Hank Hadley (George Grizzard) is a celebrated American fashion designer whose lover, Mike, has recently died. Hank’s constant companion, since he designed her wedding dress decades earlier, has been WASP socialite Tibby McCullough (Christine Baranski). Hank and Mike made a tight-knit foursome of friends with Tibby and her Republican lawyer husband Jack (David Rasche). Now the McCulloughs’ daughter Spencer (Diane Davis) is about to be married in her own Hadley gown.

But the plans are complicated when Jack gets a call from the president asking him to help draft a constitutional amendment providing an ironclad definition of marriage as a contract between man and woman. Also a lawyer (“I can write my own pre-nup!”), Spencer is whisked off to D.C. to help.

Artificial and forced, the preachy first act is a fragile dramatic construct in which Rudnick juggles jokes with platitudes about the often patronizing ways in which the straight world views its gay friends. Proudly indifferent to politics for most of his life, mild-mannered Hank had always resisted cohabitation or any talk of children with Mike, which was a bone of major contention. Out of respect for his partner, he refuses to shrug off the slap in the face represented by Jack and Spencer’s involvement in a fight against gay rights — or Tibby’s ignorance of why he should be offended.

As numbing as it is, the stand-and-discuss approach to the gay-marriage debate, and to the virtues and failings of marriage in general, is preferable to the circus that follows intermission. Calling on his network of friends, Hank has orchestrated a one-day strike of every gay man and lesbian on the Eastern Seaboard. That means no hairdressers, florists, trainers, travels agents or even doormen and elevator operators (since when were they gay?). It also means theater choices for Tibby’s matinee-loving mother (Sian Phillips) have been narrowed to David Mamet and Neil LaBute.

In a scene as wacky as it is excruciating, poor Phillips is forced to enter ranting about the Broadway shutdown while wearing shoe boxes on her feet and daywear fashioned by costume designer William Ivey Long out of trash bags. Don’t ask. Lest anyone feel too bad for Phillips, Baranski gets to share the humiliation soon after with one of the screechiest and phoniest sitcom meltdowns ever heard, when Hank forces her to take a stand.

Dryer than the driest martini, Baranski can deadpan her way through droll snobbery, wicked put-downs, guilt-free glamour and ecstatic superficiality like nobody. “Is it cold out? Do I need a bracelet?” she asks, looking every inch the sleek, chic cocktail queen in Long’s dresses.

Grizzard also is a wonderful actor, warm and wise. He’s not quite the natural type to be tossing off Rudnick’s bitchy one-liners (Hank’s dismissals of his rivals for wedding-gown supremacy will delight fashionistas) but his underplaying of the character, inspired by Bill Blass, keeps him debonair and dignified throughout.

Rudnick hands his cast plenty of amusing dialogue, but he has given them nothing to play. The comedy begins to grate because it’s nothing but smartly dressed, smug rich folks, out of touch with the real world and not real enough to be convincingly in touch with each other. Even when the play airs its agenda, it can’t decide whether it wants to endorse or mock trite sentiments such as “All gay people want is the freedom to love.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone on either side of the gay-marriage debate taking much away from this feeble comedy beyond the feeling expressed in its title.

Regrets Only

NY City Center Stage I; 299 seats; $67.50 top

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

Creative: Set, Michael Yeargan; costumes; William Ivey Long; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson; production stage manager, Ryan McMahon. Opened Nov. 19, 2006. Reviewed Nov. 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Tibby McCullough - Christine Baranski Spencer McCullough - Diane Davis Hank Hadley - George Grizzard Myra Kesselman - Jackie Hoffman Marietta Claypoole - Sian Phillips Jack McCullough - David Rasche

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