Monday, May 14, 2012

THE NEW CENTURY • Max & Louie Productions

Paul Rudnick's 2007 play is made up of vignettes, primarily featuring monologues by its main characters who all have one thing in common -- they are, or have been affected by, someone gay.  This set-up could potentially present as a virtual pride parade of stereotypical characters.  Well, it kinda does.  In between the ready-made laughs, and there are many, you can spot moments of introspection from certain characters, but those delicate strokes are often layered over with the script's heavier-handed brush strokes of over-the-top clichés.

The festivities begin with Helene Nadler (Stellie Siteman), self-proclaimed "most loving mother of all time".  Why?  Well, she's got a lesbian daughter, actually two, except one is transgender.  Then there's her son David, also gay, with fetishes for leather and scatology <-- don't ask.  That's why I made it a link.  In a presentation she's giving to the “Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others” group, she fiercely defends her love for her children, but you can tell that despite her claims of being the most accepting mother in the world, she's really trying to convince herself that her children are truly okay.  Stellie Siteman plays up Helene's enthusiasm, but the over-long narrative loses steam near the end.  It also gets a little bizarre as she trots out her son, fully clad in leather, to show how submissive and obedient he is.  Whaa?

Stellie Siteman (Helene Nadler).
Photo credit:John Lamb
Then we're introduced to "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach" (Alan Knoll), and possibly the gayest man on the planet.  He's got his own show on Florida's public access channel 47 called "Too Gay".  He has no inclination to assimilate, and he claims to be able to turn people gay with a glance.  During his program, he sings the praises of good taste, laments the lost breed of pre-Stonewall era queens, and reads letters from his viewers.  Occasionally he's joined by his boy-toy, Shane (Joshua Nash Payne), who prances around showing off his hard body to the delight of Mr. Charles.  Alan Knoll completely inhabits this character, and looks like he has a lot of fun doing it, but although there was a hint of heart under all of those colorful fabrics, those insights get lost under the weight of the exaggerated characterization.  If a straight guy had written this, I'm telling you he'd be burned at the stake.

The third story contains most of the heart that there is to be had in The New Century.  Barbara Ellen (Peggy Billo) is a craftsmaster from Decatur, Illinois.  She can knit you a tuxedo cozy for your toaster, a sock puppet, or an evening gown for your cat.  After she shows us the wares from her craft booth, she eventually lets us in on the devastating loss of her son who died of AIDS, and the epiphanies she had during her trips to New York City, where her son was living.  Peggy Billo as Barbara Ellen is a standout.  She's engaging, very funny and heart-breaking in the scene that seems to have the most balance.

Joshua Nash Payne (Shane) and Alan Knoll (Mr. Charles)
Photo credit: John Lamb
All of the players wind up together at a NYC maternity ward in the fourth scene.  The reasons that bring them all there are a little vague, with the exception of Helene, whose grandchild has just been born.  We end up learning a little more about each of the characters here, but at this point, it seems more like a contrived way to have everyone meet up, not to mention a disco party ending that seems tacked-on.

It's unfortunate that a couple of these characters were written as one-dimensional stereotypes.  Now don't get me wrong -- I think poking fun at stereotypes can be fun.  There's usually always something recognizable -- parts of yourself, parts of people you know, that make it all relatable.  More often than not though, The New Century gives you nothing but assaulting one-liners that in the end, render a couple of the roles more caricature than character.

Peggy Billo (Barbara Ellen Diggs)
Photo credit: John Lamb
The stage at COCA seems a little cramped at times, but Marci Franklin's costumes were great and Mark Griggs's sound design added some nice touches.  Ted Gregory's direction seems a bit inconsistent, but again, Rudnick's script takes too long to make its point and in my opinion, doesn't underpin these stories with enough soul to rise above the over-worn stereotypes.  
Although there's plenty of humor in this presentation of short stories, don't look for too much heart.  It's playing until the 20th.  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.  Maybe I'm just uber-sensitive.


THE NEW CENTURY

Written by Paul Rudnick 
Directed by Ted Gregory
through May 20 | tickets: $15 - $30
Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Peggy Billo (Barbara Ellen Diggs), Joshua Nash Payne (Shane),
Stellie Siteman (Helene Nadler) and Alan Knoll (Mr. Charles).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
Gary Wayne Barker* (Announcer), Peggy Billo* (Barbara Ellen Diggs), Elizabeth Graveman (Joann Milderry), Alan Knoll* (Mr. Charles), Joshua Nash Payne (Shane/David Nadler), Stellie Siteman* (Helene Nadler).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Sound design by Mark Griggs; scenic design by Patrick Huber; costume design by Marci Franklin; lighting design by Glenn M. Dunn; stage manager, Kim Gifford.

9 comments:

  1. My two cents worth:

    I am gender-queer and here to say Rudnick's works are seemingly for a very specific audience. I personally have only seen his work in San Fran and Nyc, where his pieces are received fabulously! This audience-specific characteristic is exactly why I am so proud of M&L Productions for bringing such a piece to the Midwest! What courage!
    I haven't seen this production(yet), but have read the script. These characters are extreme versions of a moderate portion of society. Being gender-queer myself, I have literally met, in real life, someone who resembles (even if just slightly), each of these characters (except maybe the scatologist, but who knows for sure?!)! I feel Rudnick goes to the extreme to own the full gamut of us and break down prejudices within our own community. Mr. Charles, too gay for NYC??? BUT he finds a home in Florida!!! There is a place for everyone, no matter how extreme your kink. Who knows why we are what we are or why we become what we become. Rudnick just seems to be saying, "Let's have a laugh at it and embrace each soul for the human that it is, no matter how far out or how drab". Live your own life and let other people live theirs!!!

    The best thing is the show has people talking! How divine theatre is when it stretches boundaries and mores!

    Thanks for the comment box. :)

    Most Respectfully,
    Brooks Bail

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  2. Brooke,

    I agree with your point about the show has people talking. I have seen the production and loved it! I and a few others in the audience seemed to be sympathetic with the likes of Mr. Charles, in particular. The rest of the crowd seemed to almost feel downright hostile towards him - either through a lack of understanding or from too clear an understanding of what he represents. Some audience members murmured disgust at his character - what? In the 21st Century. I am not from St.Louis so this reaction took me buy surprise.

    I am curious about the writer's comment about "if a straight guy wrote this he would be burned at the stake". Is this in St. Louis or do you think this would be in New York or Los Angeles as well? What do you think this says about tolerance in the arts in general? Just curious.

    Thanks to Max and Louie for bringing it to St. Louis.

    Michael

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  3. I agree with Brooks and Michael.

    I am a straight male, made me some children, overall a slice of Americana circa 1950s. I can't say that I personally know any of these characters or not, but I do like being made to think, to experience the unknown and expand my horizons to accept all human beings.

    So, thank you Max & Louie for taking us out on a limb to get to the heart of the tree.

    Gabe

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  4. Thank you all for your comments!

    Hey Brooks - I'm a lesbian, so it's not at all like these characters were foreign to me. And like I said, I think poking fun at ourselves is a good thing and can be fun. I'm honestly not sure whether it was the script (that I admittedly wasn't crazy about) or the performances, but I just really felt like there wasn't enough sincerity in it for me. This is hard to explain, and I didn't get into it in the blog, but parts of this play actually offended me. Honestly, maybe it's because I saw this play on the heels of Obama announcing that he supports gay marriage (yay!) or maybe it's because I spend a lot of my free time volunteering for an LGBT advocacy organization, and I know that there is still a tremendous amount of prejudice out there, and people spending millions of dollars to try to keep LGBT folks classified as "second class", so perhaps I just wasn't up for these topics being so blatanly, although humorously, made fun of.

    Hey Michael-
    What I meant with that "burned at the stake" comment was that I felt like if this was coming from a straight person, it wouldn't be tolerated -- kind of along the lines of a white person writing a derogatory play with people in black-face. Now that's an extreme example, but I hope that makes sense. I also think theatre audiences here are pretty accepting -- especially the audiences that patron the regional companies.

    I've seen a fair amount of shows that poke fun at ethnicity, religion, sexual and/or gender orientation, etc., and I don't mind those. But to me, if everything is over-the-top without any real heart, it feels to me more like laughing at the LGBT community rather than with the LGBT community.

    Hi Gabe-
    I do admire Max & Louie Productions for putting this play on, and like I said in the blog, maybe I'm just too hyper-sensitive to it, being gay myself.

    Regardless, I'm glad you guys enjoyed the show, and a piece that makes you think is a very good thing. Thanks again so much for your thoughtful comments.

    -Andrea

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  5. A2--You don't need to apologize for your opinions or even explain them cause you're the reviewer and your job is to write what you see. In this case, however, having read the script and talked to the playwright, it is not the fault of the script. It isn't perfect, of course, but you really do need to read it, and I'd recommend that to all who commented (except the person who already did). I, too, admire the company for taking a risk, although I don't think it's all THAT risky because it's so cartoonish; but in this case, except for Peggy Billo, these actors were miscast. Good review overall Andrea!
    A1

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  6. Andrea,

    I am a gay male. Why were you offended? Just curious. The whole point of the show for me was acceptance and tolerance - what we think is put on, "cartoonish", whether it is the circumstances or the affectations of the characters, is very real for some people (think Charles Nelson Riley or Rip Taylor). Would people accept them today or see them as an embarrassment? I don't think either are funny, personally, but I am of a different generation. They belong to a different generation. But the fact is they "belonged". Mr. Charles does not belong it appears - we have pushed him out - there is a limit to our tolerance it seems to me. Perhaps we think he is too much of a cliche to believe - but, again, that is the point, I think. I believe one of the most poignant lines in the show is when Mr. Charles says the hairpiece, or what we presume to be a hairpiece, is really his. In other words, it is real, it is not to be dismissed as fake. Frankly, I've been a regular patron of theatre in St. Louis for several years and I don't really know who else you would cast in those roles A1. As for offending? You are an acknowledged lesbian, I am curious to hear your thoughts as to why you were really offended? Is there a limit to your tolerance? Not accusing, just asking you to self-reflect. What would you say to the "straight" people who are offended by your lifestyle? This production actually made me pause and take a perception check myself. I think for the gay community, this show is a must see, as it really is the first piece of theatre I have seen that addresses prejudices within our own community in such an "in your face" manner.
    Best, Lee

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  7. This play offended you, and your gay, and you support the LGBT community..HUH.
    And when you say you know there's a tremendous amount of prejudice out there...........isn't this a play that begins or continues the process of eliminating that kind of thought process.

    The New Century is nothing more than having the COURAGE TO BE WHO YOU ARE.

    Nothing in between the lines.

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  8. Anonymous-
    For me? No, I don't think this play is successful in beginning the process of eliminating prejudicial ways of thinking. Is it entertaining? Yes. But although I don't want to get too personal in a blog that centers on theatre, I'll do it now, because when it comes to issues like these, I draw on many personal experiences, so what the hell. :)
    I love Max & Louie for doing this play. It's obviously started some conversation -- and that's always good. But like I've said in my previous postings, I think there is a thin line between poking fun at and celebrating common stereotypes, and being able to craftily mix those musings in with thoughtful observations that point out the common denominators that make us all connected. This play didn't quite live up to that last part of it for me. It gave us a little of that, but not enough to make much of an impression, aside from presenting a pride parade of caricatures. There were some great performances, but I thought the script lacked a well-rounded depth. That's it. Just my opinion. But regardless, I appreciate your comment, and hope you continue to enjoy all of the theatre this town has to offer.

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  9. The lack of direction is what offended me. It is a challenging script which needs an experienced, talented director who is earnest in life and art. The actors appeared to be left to their own devices, not misguided, just NOT guided at all. I felt sorry for the cast. Having seen all the elders of the cast perform many times elsewhere, I know they are capable of a more heartfelt delivery.

    I know, I am late to this post, but not being a strict follower of reviews, I just stumbled across this. May this company have better luck (talent) with future productions.

    ReplyDelete

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