While Broadway’s new $100 ducat continues to provoke public grousing, Off Broadway edges silently toward minimal nights in the theater that are just as costly per minute as “The Producers” or “Mamma Mia!” is. The Drama Dept.’s 65-minute presentation of Paul Rudnick’s semi-new “Rude Entertainment,” an evening of three one-act plays, is an example. Skits would be more the word. You know it’s not TV because the seats are uncomfortable. You know it’s over when the actors take their bows and you’re expected to applaud.
Does such lite legit really require a curtain raiser? For that dubious purpose, Rudnick has recycled his very brief “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach,” updated from 1998. Maybe 1968 is more like it.
Ready for the equivalent of gay knock-knock jokes? “Can gay people change?” the septuagenarian Mr. Charles (Peter Bartlett) asks his cable-TV audience. “Yes,” he tells us. “For dinner.” “Should gays be allowed to marry?” he asks. “Yes. Older rich women.”
Lesbians come under scrutiny as Mr. Charles ridicules their weight, haircuts and for emerging “every spring.” And as any student of Gay Theater 101 knows, Mr. Charles’ boyfriend-sidekick (Neal Huff) is dumb and superficial because he is young, good-looking and goes to the gym.
As with everything gay in Rudnick’s universe, even adoption comes down to status. The switch in playlet No. 2, “Very Special Needs,” is that the two prospective daddies (Huff, Bartlett) end up with a middle-aged child (Harriet Harris) from someplace called Smolakia who is really a poor adoption-agency worker who just wants to live in Tribeca and be taken care of by two guys with more disposable income than Jann Wenner and David Geffen combined. Despite a very game trio of actors, the ridiculous in “Very Special Needs” is simply incredible, never insightful or remotely funny.
With “On the Fence,” Rudnick offers the intriguing premise of an after-life meeting between three gay icons: Matthew Shepherd (Huff), Eleanor Roosevelt (Harris) and Paul Lynde (Bartlett). Strung out on a log fence, Shepherd needs to be convinced that he has indeed been murdered by a couple of roadhouse thugs. Roosevelt tries the gentle approach. Lynde calls Shepherd so much “road kill,” which eventually does the trick.
“On the Fence” is audacious fun — until Rudnick let’s us know what he’s up to here. No sooner has Shepherd realized he’s dead than he wants revenge. For some reason never explained, so do Roosevelt and Lynde, who enjoyed relatively nonviolent deaths. The world is divided between “people who kill and those who wish they could kill,” one of them shouts from the stage before all three pull out guns.
Harris and Bartlett’s impressions of Roosevelt and Lynde are dead-on. Allen Moyer’s sets and Kirk Bookman’s lighting effectively re-create both a Wyoming landscape and a trendy Tribeca apartment pre-Sept. 11. Christopher Ashley directs.