With just a handful of major New York credits following 25 years of regional theater work, Jayne Houdyshell has shown she can anchor just about anything someplace real — from metatheatrical rumination to horror, social satire to sitcom. The warmth and humor she radiates are beguiling enough, but it’s the hint of mischief that cements her conspiratorial rapport with the audience. Playing a character that’s like some lovably nerdy aunt who insists on sending you Chia Pets or Anne Geddes calendars, yet somehow you just can’t get enough of her, Houdyshell is the most substantial reason to see Paul Rudnick’s ephemerally amusing quartet of playlets, “The New Century.”
That title is something of a misnomer. The mechanically intertwined one-acts might ostensibly be an optimistic salute to a burgeoning era of inclusiveness, but the material feels like warmed-over sketches from 20 years ago.
One of the pieces, “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach,” actually is from 1998 and is showing its age despite updates that include a John McCain military sex fantasy. But even when the newer components reference 9/11 or Christo’s Gates, the writing feels dated.
Rudnick’s jokes about being gay or being Jewish can be pretty funny, but they don’t exactly suggest the playwright has his finger on the pulse of what’s on people’s minds these days. He writes terrific one-liners and spins out extended comic monologues with flair. But as soon as two or more characters interact, Rudnick’s structural foundations tend to wobble. And when he reaches for profundity, things get even shakier.
That’s not to say Houdyshell is the sole source of enjoyment here. First up, there’s Linda Lavin, in fine acerbic form in “Pride and Joy” as Helene Nadler, the self-described “most accepting, the most tolerant, and the most loving mother of all time. Bar none.”
Lavin takes a more low-key, less caricatured approach than Jackie Hoffman, who originated the piece in 2004. Addressing a meeting of the Massapequa, Long Island chapter of a parents support group, she starts with her lesbian daughter, Leslie (“What was I thinking?”), and proceeds to outline the increasingly hard-to-swallow sexual preferences of her three children. Outfitted by William Ivey Long in spangly faux Chanel and a tidy platinum ‘do, she reaches repeatedly for the comfort of a Kleenex while struggling to keep a brave, nonjudgmental face, smiling sweetly for approval before releasing another barb.
Second is “Mr. Charles,” with Peter Bartlett stepping back into the pistachio slacks, watermelon jacket and frosted toupee of the cable-access taste guru and host of “Too Gay,” deemed too nellie for New York, hence his exile to South Florida. Perched on Allen Moyer’s set of gilt-edged frou-frou, Mr. Charles holds forth on the steady extinction of the fearlessly effeminate flamer, attended to by his buff “ward,” Shane (Mike Doyle).
Rudnick makes some tart points about the homogenization of gay culture and celebrates the self-styled stereotype of the swishy queens that endured ridicule and ostracism to flaunt their sexual identity. But despite Bartlett’s considerable charms in the role, the play’s time-warp humor is tired and its politics obsolete. The casting team behind the Bravo reality-show machine has now shoved the proud Marys so far into the spotlight it’s as if the gay underground never existed.
Things pick up after intermission with “Crafty,” in which chipper Barbara Ellen Diggs (Houdyshell) of Decatur, Ill., expounds on the spiritual rewards of American crafts. Citing her primary expenses as “labor, Zoloft and glue,” she extols the virtues of crochet, applique and scrapbooking, while displaying an array of handiwork that runs from a tuxedo toaster cover to an oven mitt fashioned out of discarded Gates fabric. (“You see? That Christo can make something useful.”)
Houdyshell’s effortlessly naturalistic characterization banishes any trace of condescension from the material, making you stay with her as Barbara Ellen recalls her gradual acceptance of her son’s homosexuality and chokes up while recounting his loss. Rudnick’s writing is not without sentimentality, but Houdyshell is genuinely moving as she lights up over her discovery of a crafts connection in the AIDS quilt or recounts her bonding with a bereaved New Yorker in Central Park.
The final seg from which the program takes its name is the weakest on the bill. And Nicholas Martin’s pedestrian direction is unable to overcome the contrived whimsy of the principal characters’ collision in a Manhattan maternity ward.
Lavin, Bartlett and Houdyshell are such pros and are provided enough sharp lines to ensure that their interplay remains lively even as the action slips off the rails. But when the focus lurches to Shane, department-store lust and a clumsy, united-in-diversity disco finale, dramaturgical fatigue and dearth of new ideas sink “The New Century” under the weight of its own flimsiness.