“Sophisticated people,” craftsmaker per excellence Barbara Ellen declares in Paul Rudnick's The New Century, “say that crafts aren't art. But by the same token, some people say that New Yorkers aren't people.” That could be either a serious slam on New Yorkers or the introduction to a vigorous defense of America's largest city—but since Barb doesn't explain, her statement hangs in midair, like the lives of the play's three principals. New York's an easy town in which to cast oneself adrift, and Rudnick's at the ready with all sorts of references to the place.
That'd be fine if The New Century, the current Diversionary Theatre entry, held itself out as a Woody Allen comedy about Manhattan or something. But we're led to believe these four playlets are about modern sexual manners and diversity, a topic whose scope far exceeds (or should far exceed) the value of any particular locale. Rudnick backs into his characters by hiding them behind the stereotypical New York state of mind (even Barbara Ellen's Decatur-born son died of AIDS at a Midtown hospital)—and while that may amuse and bemuse some natives, the performances, although very good, might not hold such appeal for the rest of us.
The warbles in the voices; the lift of an eyebrow or shoulder; the unconscious toss of the hair or glance to the rear: Director Igor Goldin has coaxed some excellent physical nuances from his personnel, whose every flounce speaks to their characters' disparate natures. Helene Nadler (Dana Hooley) is an archetypal Long Island Jewish mother to three gay kids; Mr. Charles (Phil Johnson) is a dreadfully out-of-fashion Palm Beach public-access cable talk-show host exiled from New York for being “too gay”; and housewife Barbara Ellen (an excellent Jacque Wilke) has thrown herself into craftsmaking and cake decoration to ward off the grief from her son's move to the city and his subsequent disease and death. In the final sketch, the three meet up in a Manhattan newborn ward, where they'll supposedly commiserate about the life events that got 'em where they are.
But New Yorkers, bless 'em, are given to their extremes—and in this case, the effusion takes the form of an almost obsessive fondness. Nadler dotes on her kids and on every child who shows signs of sexual nonconformity; Charles dotes on babies and his ward Shane (a lackluster Noah Longton); Barbara Ellen dotes on her baubles and memories before breaking down at a crafts presentation. There's a monotony to that undercurrent, and it weakens the character differences Rudnick worked to create and the mood Goldin wanted to achieve with all that physicality.
Besides, who declared New York the sexual-mores capital of the U.S., and when? If Rudnick must choose an iconic locale for his play, he'd have been better off with San Francisco, or even L.A. New York's reputation precedes it in areas too great to quantify—in the public mind, the other cities get more mileage from same-sex climates and their upshots.
Do see Wilke in her splendid turn, and do watch the others flaunt their goods, if that's your thing (there's a brief scene near the beginning involving full male nudity). Beyond that, The New Century may puzzle more than inspire. As Barbara Ellen might have said, it derives its impact more from craft than from art.
This review is based on the opening matinée of Dec. 6. The New Century runs through Jan. 2 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $29-$33. www.diversionary.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.