At his best, Paul Rudnick writes plays which are hilariously funny while dealing seriously with issues like personal identity, life and death, and religion and morality. At his worst, he’s still pretty damn funny. The Collected Plays of Paul Rudnick provides ample material for both amusement and reflection, although it really should be titled The Collected Plays (So Far) of Paul Rudnick as the author presumably has many productive years ahead of him.
Rudnick is an out gay man and many of his plays include gay characters, leading some to dub him a gay writer. To which he has the perfect reply: “I’m fine with it, as long as everyone calls, say, David Mamet, a straight writer and asks him why he likes to write about straight people.” His point is well-taken: while many of his characters are gay his plays deal with much more than their gayness alone, and instead focuses on issues which concern everyone regardless of their sexual identification.
The strongest work in this collection is Jeffrey which won three Obies in 1992-1993 as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off Broadway Play and was filmed in 1995. Rudnick remarks in the forward to this volume that he had a hard time getting Jeffrey staged because, although there had been other plays dealing with the effects of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community, his was the first comedy. It’s a fine piece of writing which shows off Rudnick’s ability to be serious without being solemn while also reminding his audience that the point of life is to live it.
The title character, the actor-waiter Jeffrey, has forgotten this. He’s so afraid of contracting AIDS (an understandable fear, particularly in the days before antiretrovirals) that he’s withdrawn from life and has become disconnected from both the gay community and himself. The play follows Jeffrey through a series of brief scenes, some realistic and some fantastic, allowing Rudnick to create on stage a panorama of the wonderful variety of gay life. Darius, an HIV+ dancer in Cats, is Jeffrey’s opposite. While Jeffrey overthinks everything, Darius enjoys the good things life has brought to him and tells Jeffrey that AIDS is no excuse to stop living: “Think of AIDS as …the guest who won’t leave, the one we all hate. But you have to remember. It’s still our party.”
Among Rudnick’s more recent plays, the most successful is Regrets Only, a comedy of manners set in the Manhattan penthouse of the McCullough family. The father, Jack, is a high-powered lawyer while his wife Tibby devotes her time to charities and the arts and their daughter Spencer is set to follow her father into a well-paid legal career. Tibby is often accompanied on social/charitable outings by Hank, a well-known designer whose his long-time partner Mike recently died of cancer. The McCulloughs think they accept Hank as a member of their family but they don’t really, as becomes clear when Jack accepts an opportunity to help draft a legal definition of marriage which would restrict it to opposite-sex couples.
There’s a certain ripped-from-the-headlines aspect to that particular plot point, but the saving grace is the way Rudnick shows his characters reacting to the news and to each other’s reactions. Hank immediately understands that he’s been placed on the opposite side of an impassable gulf and that Jack has no idea what he has done. Even Tibby, close as she feels to Hank, doesn’t get it at first. The McCullough family comes up with all the usual justifications about why it doesn’t matter, and by having likeable characters say clueless things (“you didn’t need to get married” “marriage is a mystery, but we are all friends”) Rudnick exposes the kinds of careless thinking which can lend support to injustice.
The first act of Regrets Only positively sparkles with wit, but the second act isn’t nearly as good. The McCullough clan can’t locate a florist, a hairdresser or a Pilates instructor, all the Broadway shows have shut down, no priests are available to hear confession, and even the doorman is not on duty. The reason? All the gay people in New York have gone on strike, an anvilicious way to dramatize the point that gay people are everywhere and without them the city could not function. The play is also marred by a character, the maid Myra, who has a penchant for doing impersonations which are supposed to be funny but are more often tedious. Still, Regrets Only is required reading for anyone interested in writing comedy for the stage.
Also in this collection are I Hate Hamlet, an oft-performed comedy about a young actor who finds himself haunted by the ghost of John Barrymore; The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told which puts a new spin on the Biblical creation myth (the first two humans are Adam and Steve); Valhalla which juxtaposes the story of Ludwig of Bavaria with that of a 20th century gay man who happens into one of Ludwig’s castles while serving in the army; and The New Century which combines three one-act plays with a fourth act in which the characters from the previous three acts come together in a maternity ward in Manhattan. Although the four-act structure feels cobbled together (particularly since two of the first three acts had been performed as independent works) The New Century also contains some of Rudnick’s sharpest comic writing.
So this collection has its ups and downs. That’s not surprising—every playwright from Shakespeare to Edward Albee has had both successes and failures—but every play in this book offers something to the reader and as a collection it offers a great opportunity to study Rudnick’s technique. Remember this: he keeps writing and his work keeps getting performed, so he must be doing something right.