Paul Rudnick is an utterly original humorist, but he keeps writing epilogues to other peoples’ 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 play features 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 conservative Republican senator with a similar fear that all the systems holding his life 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 that loosen-up, recapture-your-love-of-life theme, well, “Barefoot in the Park,” anyone? “Zorba”?
We carp. In “The Naked Truth,” one character thinks vulva is a car, a lesbian’s murderous compulsions are triggered by bad French, and a deb mistakes a photo of a black phallus for “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. Alex is not dangerous. Nevertheless, just 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), and the museum to have three of the most outrageous photos removed from the exhibition.
Instead, Alex asks Nan to pose naked for him, and she agrees, partly to go one up on her husband, a philandering, hypocritical senator with presidential aspirations. By the time they have their inevitable pre-gala confrontation, their married daughter Sissy (J. Smith Cameron, in a hilarious, stream-of-consciousness romp on Trisha Nixon, among others) will have fallen for Cassandra (Valarie Pettiford), Alex’s felonious black lesbian assistant (“Where will this lead,” Sissy wonders, “divorce, a custody battle, clogs?”); Pete’s trashy mistress (Debra Messing) will have confessed that it’s Nan she truly admires, and Nan herself will have been transformed from frozen-coifed, upper-crust doormat to liberated gal, as evidenced by her clingy 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 play 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 survive 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 photograph 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.