Put on a happy face

Paul Rudnick's tonics for gay solemnity lack fizz at New Conservatory

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Sashay: Seth Michael Anderson and Patrick Michael Dukeman
PHOTO BY LOIS TEMA

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THEATER Twenty-first-century post-9/11 gay America doesn't get a makeover in Paul Rudnick's new collection of short plays, it goes out for one. Rudnick (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told; Valhalla) surveys the state of the gay nation through four small, broadly comical vignettes in three far-flung American locales — all slouching toward Manhattan — and finds it taking itself and everything else far too seriously.

Admittedly, this is an opportune moment for some accounting. The Proposition 8 battle rages its way toward the Supreme Court; the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy looks set to become a quaint anachronism; and in another cunning argument for atheism, the bishop of Essen, Germany — hip-deep in an ongoing clerical sexual abuse scandal — has just declared that all gays are bound for hell.

Time sashays on. But The New Century, taking its local bow in director George Maguire's sporadically effective production at New Conservatory Theatre Center, already feels a bit stale, despite dependable one-liners from its witty playwright.

In the first playlet, "Pride and Joy," well-to-do Jewish mother Helene Nadler (Marie O'Donnell, in a smart skirt and blouse and a less well-fitting New York accent) addresses us from the linoleum floor of a school auditorium. Backed by a banner whose utter inclusiveness demands the most estranging acronym, Helene relates her determination to be "the most loving mother of all time" in the face of three children whose homosexual orientations range from the hum-drum to the downright pootré ("In this house we use the toilet," she tells son David, "not a friend from Tribeca!"). The spirit of can-do parenting achieves a kind of crescendo when David (Seth Michael Anderson) briefly appears in full BDSM attire.

"Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach" opens on the eponymous late-night cable-access flaneur (a solid Patrick Michael Dukeman) in an explosion of pastel finery. He's a former Manhattanite forced into South Florida exile, we are told, for being "too gay." True to form, Mr. Charles flounces about in unabashed embrace of his self-proclaimed title as the last of the true queens. Answering viewer letters, he reads, "Mr. Charles, do you enjoy gay theater?" and responds, with perhaps too much truth, "I am gay theater!" Assistant Shane (Anderson) brings the beefcake to this on-air party, whose point again has to do with the embrace of radical — if heavily stereotyped — difference over conformity to the dreary American norm.

"Crafty," the third playlet, offers yet another angle, this one from a not so with-it but terribly handy mother from Decatur, Ill., (a sharp, genial Deborah Rucker) addressing the Junior Chamber of Commerce with her eye-poking assortment of craft treasures. "Crafts allow me to express myself," she says sweetly, "to create something worth dusting!" As she reminisces about her gay son Hank, a talented Broadway designer long dead of AIDS, we find an expansive note of acceptance peaking out from an unlikely assortment of tea cozies and sock monkeys.

All points and characters converge in the eponymous closer, set in a Manhattan maternity ward. There, Mr. Charles trains his "gay ray" on the next generation, and Shane describes an epiphany at the site of the old WTC brought on by the Century 21 sign beaming in neon above it. To Shane, the discount chain is like Prozac with parking, offering a way out of everyone's funk. "It's like if Patti LuPone were a store," he enthuses. That image of a new material neon dawn rising over the emptiness of ground zero is probably about right. But is it really so great or new?

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