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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York

By Robert Simonson

  Pictured: George Grizzard and Christine Baranski/Photo: Joan Marcus, 2006

It is a singularly depressing fact that, for the past 15 years, playwright Paul Rudnick has been considered the preeminent wit of the American theatre. Beginning with the thin, almost amateurish "I Hate Hamlet" and running through such dramatic scarecrows as "Jeffrey" and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," critics have repeatedly christened Rudnick our own Wilde, applauding epigrammatical talents which, at least to this critic, have never risen above the level of the faceless scribblers who provide "extra material" for the hosts of talk shows and televised award ceremonies.

What makes Rudnick's sustained success all the more enervating is his lack of dramaturgical skill. Of all successful American playwrights, he has perhaps the least grasp on how to construct a dramatic story, follow a plot through or develop character. The plays never seem more than clotheslines on which to clip a string of punch lines and tart observations that might draw a smile if uttered over dinner, but only elicit sighs when gussied up as stage dialogue.

With "Regrets Only," Rudnick is again all dressed up, though his play goes very few places indeed. Manhattan Theatre Club has given the production a sumptuous design, employing set designer Michael Yeargan and costumer William Ivey Long-talents who rarely venture Off-Broadway. The cast is top notch: George Grizzard, Jackie Hoffman, Sian Phillips, David Rasche and, for the crowning glory, the exquisite comedienne Christine Baranski in her first appearance on the New York stage in 15 years. Her last stage role was on the same stage, in Terrence McNally's "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," and one despairs to think of how much more she had to work with in that drama.

Here, she plays dithering socialite Tibby McCullough, a creature of another, bygone Manhattan, whose life is one swirl of charity events, high-price lunches and shopping. Her husband Jack (Rasche) is a somewhat fatuous lawyer of great wealth and influence. The action begins when Tibby is reunited with her life-long best friend, Hank Hadley (Grizzard), a debonair, gay, Bill Blass-like designer who recently lost his partner of 38 years. Everything is set for a splendiferous night out when Jack announces he has been asked by the President to fly to Washington and work on a new amendment that better defines legal marriage (read: a law to keep gays away from the altar). Hank, never a political animal, is wounded by the McCullough's lighthearted attitude toward the news and begins to question their friendship, and, later, set in motion a rather silly revenge.

Rudnick has said in interviews that, with "Regrets," he was attempting to replicate the American drawing room comedies perfected by playwrights like Philip Barry, author of "Holiday" and "The Philadelphia Story" and other urban comedies. But for Barry, witty frivolity was a canapé his characters nibbled on while they were busy digesting more substantive matters. For Rudnick, frivolity has always the main course, despite his introduction of weighty topics like gay marriage. Tracy Lord would never devote her life to endless, empty sprees, forever chasing thoughts from her bubble-head, as "Regrets"' Tibby does. And there's little in Tibby that would inspire the loyalty of Mccauley Conner or C.K. Dexter Haven, making the attraction of Hank Hadley-who appears (at least in George Grizzard's wise and thoughtful portrayal) to be a man of taste and acuity-rather mystifying. More mystifying, however, is why producers and critics continue to read profound social commentary into Rudnick's flimsy flights of fancy. One possible cure to this delusion: read Wilde and Barry before attending the next Rudnick, for a refreshment course on comedic st


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