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NY Theater Reviews

Jayne Houdyshell/PH: Sara Krulwich

TAKEN AT THE FLOOD

By Jessica Branch

Paul Rudnick's The New Century is a warm, witty comedy...that celebrates those forebears that made contemporary urban gay life possible.

Paul Rudnick begins The New Century by celebrating those who went before - the spiritual (and actual) forebears who made contemporary urban gay life possible - but who have themselves become unfashionable stereotypes.

In this witty, warm comedy, Rudnick's three protagonists not only inhabit their supposedly outdated identities, they positively revel in them, as each in turn addresses the audience (a la Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild ). Helene Nadler (Linda Lavin ) is a Jewish Long Island matron who adores her three kids, even as they proceed to reveal their various sexual preferences: One's a lesbian one's a male-to-female transsexual who's also a lesbian and the third (a doctor!) is into leather and scatology. The second, Rudnick stalwart Mr. Charles (Peter Bartlett ) is the flamboyantly effete Palm Beach television show host of Too Gay . Exiled from New York for flaming too excessively, he now answers questions about Nellie -ness, interspersing the education with appearances from his ward hunky young Shane (Mike Doyle), in various states of undress. The third hero/ine, Barbara Ellen Diggs, (Jayne Houdyshell ) is a plump Midwestern craftsperson who lovingly scrapbooks, crochets tuxedo cozies for her toaster, and purchases Hummel figurines to embarrass her son - who fled mid-America to make costumes on Broadway.

Rudnick's humor is no less honed for the humanity, and his one-liners and potshots at popular culture and modern mores are as sharp as ever - but his targets, his totems, and his tolerance may surprise some (though not those who've read his novel, I'll Take It) His trio may all seem like figures the millennium has already left behind. But as each in turn delivers her or his monologue, among the gales of giggles, we see that cliche cutes can be people, too - and stellar performances help emphasize the real emotional depth that underlies the jokes. Each character is imbued with complexity and warmth - and is nothing if not self-aware. As Lavin's urbane Helene sharply retorts in the play's final scene, Just because I'm critical and articulate, you assume I'm Jewish? and the endearing Barbara Ellen wryly remarks that when she visited her citified son, his friends found her droll because I wear polyester without irony. And Mr. Charles' show is essentially an indictment of the PC but straight-acting New Yorker crowd that can't stomach his pre-Stonewall drama queen persona. And when all three meet, in an ending that's cheerfully contrived, they each face their own simplistic idea of the others and then see through them to a mutual sympathy that's as solid as it is surprising.