Where to begin with all that’s wrong with Paul Rudnick’s new play, “Big Night,” which takes place in a swanky Hollywood hotel suite before and after the Academy Awards ceremony where a C-lister named Michael (Brian Hutchison) stands to become the first openly gay actor to accept an Academy Award?
Let’s start with the fact that Rudnick — the typically hilarious writer of stage and screen responsible for “Jeffrey” and “In & Out” — doesn’t seem to realize the historical significance of this win, which ought to have been sufficient drama on which to hang the entire show. One can just imagine all the backstage quarterbacking as Michael’s boyishly young agent Cary (Max Jenkins) coaches his client, a serious Juilliard-trained actor who’s just received a five-picture offer to appear in the “Star Wars” franchise, on whether or not to acknowledge his homosexuality in his acceptance speech. But “Big Night” avoids all that, settling for far easier (albeit infrequent) laughs.
In addition to being gay, Michael is also Jewish, and nearly all Rudnick’s punchlines center on those two aspects of his identity, hitting the Jewish angle especially hard: There are Bar Mitzvah jokes and Passover jokes and Hanukkah jokes and Yiddish jokes — pretty much everything but Bris jokes. Then come the gay jokes. The first guest to appear is Michael’s nephew, Eddie, née Erica (played by trans actor Tom Phelan), a female-to-male college student who earnestly implores his uncle to take a stand against Academy prejudice by decrying the cisgender actor also nominated in his category (best supporting actor) for playing a trans character.
Politically speaking, such things do matter, but apparently not so much to Rudnick, who uses the cause as fodder for cheap shots about gender pronouns and political correctness. Strange for a play that takes place so deep within its own queer echo-chamber that every single character is L, G, B or T (though Rudnick can’t resist rattling off the rest of the alphabet for easy laughs, quipping that “gender fluid … sounds like a cleaning product”).
That applies even to Michael’s Jewish mother, Esther, who enters after a laggy first 15 minutes or so — and hers truly is an entrance, as slender, long-legged actress Wendie Malick swans in wearing a glittering silver gown. A brash, irrepressible Christine Baranski type, she wastes no time in establishing herself as the most interesting person in the room, stealing scenes right out from under her humdrum son (the idea that this dullard might ever be Oscar nominated is an insult to anyone who ever has been).
“Tonight isn’t about me,” Esther insists, before proceeding to make it all about her when she drops a bombshell: Instead of wasting time as a widow, she has fallen in love again, this time with Pulitzer prize-winning poet Eleanor (Kecia Lewis) — another dramatic opportunity missed. Although “Big Night” consistently avoids the storylines that seem most promising, it’s not for lack of having something serious to say. But when Rudnick does try to make his statement, the play practically falls apart entirely. (Stop reading here if you don’t wish to spoil the surprise.)
For the first half of “Big Night,” Michael’s partner Austin (Luke Macfarlane) has been missing. We’re free to imagine all sorts of explanations (they met in a club, then spent the next eight hours wandering the streets of L.A., which suggests he might have a crystal meth problem), but the real one is a doozy — and a mood-ruining bit of emotional manipulation so egregious, it’s hard to take seriously: Austin had been volunteering at the local LGBTQ youth center when a gunman walked in and shot more than 50 kids.
The incident casts a pall over the Oscar ceremony, of which Rudnick includes just Michael’s speech, beginning with that old cliché where the actor takes out his notes, starts to read and then decides to speak from the heart instead — a convention that simply doesn’t work under these circumstances. In fact, the only way such a scene might have been effective is if Rudnick had written the other play, the one in which Michael must decide whether or not to acknowledge his sexuality from the stage, then is compelled at the last moment by forces bigger than his petty career concerns.
As inside-joke showbiz satires go, “Big Night” is inexplicably out-of-touch on how things work, from Hollywood’s “don’t ask, don’t tell (and if asked, let Scientology find you a wife)” policy to the Academy Awards (which never go to actors whose only credits are regional theater and “Law & Order” guest spots). But even if it did get these things right, why invent the youth center shooting? Wouldn’t an attack on the Oscars themselves be more interesting — and plausible?
Rudnick has a hard time juggling the competing tones of the play, alternating between the cattiness that comes naturally (as when Esther dismisses the Edible Arrangements fruit bouquet) and heavy-handed social commentary (a preposterous moment in which Eddie pulls out a gun and proposes that he try to hunt down the gunman zirself). Though he’s shell-shocked by what he’s just witnessed, Macfarlane makes for nice eye candy as Austin (who might just as well have been written shirtless) in the second half of the play.
But there’s no denying the terrorist attack is a cheap stunt, one that merely reinforces the play’s agenda, when it would have been far more effective if Rudnick had forced these liberal-minded characters to face off against at least one bigot, or someone who challenges their progressive ideals. Though he wrote one of the funniest movies of the last 25 years (that would be 1992’s “Sister Act,” albeit pseudonymously), Rudnick isn’t likely to win an Oscar in this lifetime, so this is his chance to say his piece. As “Big Night” is written, Michael manages to perform two possible acceptance speeches. Surely at least one of them should be the highlight of the play.