Paul Rudnick may be the funniest American playwright who can't really write--at least, he has major problems with balance, structure, and especially with the delicate intermingling of the serious and the silly. In his widely staged plays I Hate Hamlet, Jeffrey, and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, which receives its Southwest premiere by Fort Worth Theatre, you get the sense that he suffers a bit of an inferiority complex over being "merely" witty.
It's no surprise that he's one of Hollywood's highest-paid script doctors, credited or not. He can take the most situational of comedies and endow them with lines that take you by surprise with their incisiveness. (His screenplay for Addams Family Values makes that movie one of the most under-appreciated big-budget comedies of the past decade). His style is akin to a drive-by shooting--see a random series of big targets, aim, and bag 'em--and he's a marksman of intimidating precision. It's not uncommon while watching one of his plays or movies to pause very briefly after an actor fires his ammo, feel it penetrate the heart of several different matters at once, and then laugh till your face is wet. When one sweetly dimwitted woman in The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told begins to discuss her enormous collection of angel statuettes, another character casually remarks, "Angels are Prozac for poor people," and commercialized spirituality, class divisions, and pharmacological crutches get scathed in the same bonfire.
But as time goes on, Rudnick's tendency to take clumsy stabs at poignancy or profundity gets worse. You wonder if he's gotten his roles as playwright and script doctor confused. In his original plays, he gussies up serious subjects such as AIDS phobia, gay-bashing, anti-Semitism, and other contemporary sins against progressivism and festoons them with his sparkling quips, zingers, asides, one-liners, and bon mots. Trouble is, his devastating wit decorates rather than penetrates; he uses social tragedies like flash cards to remind you that he wants you to laugh and think and feel. His gearshifts into tearful moments feel just like that: reminders that as a clown he can be redeemed.
The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told
Fort Worth Theatre's Orchestra Hall, 4401 Trail Lake Drive, Fort Worth
Through January 27 (817) 921-5300
The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, his queered-up rendition of the Old Testament creation stories, was first staged in 1998 to higher critical praise than it deserved. Rudnick benefited from the proximity of the controversy over Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, a lavender version of Christ's relationship with the apostles. You remember all the high dudgeon being worked up from the right and then the left--fundamentalist morons cry blasphemy, death threats are issued, Manhattan Theatre Club cancels then reschedules the world premiere, and Tony Kushner and Wendy Wasserstein get to weep together at a press conference. There is indeed a wealth of homoerotic possibilities in interpreting the stories of Jesus and his beloved brethren, but what McNally turned out was embarrassingly bad: This character was a hairdresser, that one a hustler, and the hoariest tropes of 1970s gay urban life were regurgitated (the playwright, who came of age in the halcyon days of the bathhouse, couldn't even manage to update his clichés). The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told came along a couple months later, and if it wasn't necessarily a more well-crafted script, it was definitely a helluva lot more entertaining and topical. When one character wonders if any religion exists that doesn't hate women and homosexuals, and another replies solemnly, simply, "Oprah," ticketbuyers were at least treated to a mind that was wildly interested in today's phenoms.
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Local stage pundits have expressed some surprise because Most Fabulous Story debuted at Fort Worth Theatre, established decades ago but still a community theater that uses largely untrained performers. With its oodles of male frontal nudity, same-sex smooching and copulating, and general irreverence that gets heated and spiky with a cry of "Fuck you, God!," the show would presumably be inconsistent with any season that includes The Music Man and Barefoot in the Park. However varying the degree of experience in the artists that they use, Fort Worth Theatre has certainly expanded one's assumptions about the phrase "community theater" with a Hispanic playwrights festival and their Labor of Love series (including The Boys in the Band and Love! Valour! Compassion!), which seems to be manager Steve Garrett's lunge for a headlock on the city's gay male audience. Devastatingly cheeky though Rudnick is, Most Fabulous Story has a sloppy, lopsided, one-liners-strung-together feel that makes it appropriate for a nonprofessional production. Because the best dialogue is just so damn smart and funny no matter how you say it, the playwright succeeds in making some of the performances look and sound better than they are. As for the shock value, Rudnick is really too good-natured to work very hard to offend anybody. His muddy compendium of stereotypes--bull dykes, sissies, caustic Jews, dorky Mormons--actually represents the most democratic kind of comedy. And if male nudity and same-sex kissing angers you then, well, I suppose it all comes down to what kind of crowd you hang with; that stuff's common enough in my life to be fairly mundane.
Director Larry Taylor makes the first and second acts even more disconnected than Rudnick wrote them. We begin in the Old Testament with an omnipotent stage manager (Lynda Rodriguez) who brings light to the proceedings, and after intermission end up at a West Village Christmas Eve apartment where a birth is about to take place. The first half had some problems with sluggish spaces between the lines; the actors weren't hitting their cues, and the show crawled in passages as the audience is introduced to Adam (David Torres) and Steve (Tony Phillips) and Jane (Erinn Hall) and Mabel (Angela Allen), two same-sex couples who somewhat uncomfortably share The Garden of Eden. They're horrified to discover that other male and female creatures actually have sex together to perpetuate the species ("We don't have children," Steve sniffs of him and his lover. "We have taste"). We bumpily wind our way through zoological mating lessons on the Ark, Adam and Steve's first fight, which sends Steve on a circuit-party binge through Sodom till the city's destroyed ("How?" Adam asks when they're reunited. "By tourists," his boyfriend replies), and an audience with a preening Pharaoh (Lon Barrera). As steeped in a gay male sensibility as this show is, Erinn Hall and Angela Allen as butch Jane and hippy chick Mable carve out the clearest, most consistent characters.
The whole cast hit its stride in Act Two, where the original gay and lesbian couples became contemporary partners who collaborate via artificial insemination on a child to be borne by a very gripy Jane. Round after round of solid belly laughs seemed to encourage the performers to tighten up their timing and enthusiasm for a wedding by a wheelchair-bound rabbi and talk show host played by T. Seret Gomez-Ryan (if you want her services, call 1-900-SHE-BREW) and a riotous, profanity-laced delivery in darkness by Jane. It's Paul Rudnick who breaks the rhythm with the abrupt introduction of protease inhibitors failing Steve and some throwaway questioning of God's existence. Simply put, Rudnick raises very vexing themes late in the game that he's either unwilling or unable to fully explore. AIDS and existential despair are certainly linked, but he hasn't found a humorous way to deal with them. That may sound callous unless you've read the late, lamented David B. Feinberg's Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion, fictionalized autobiographies that find reasons to laugh amidst a plague. They achieve what's lacking in Rudnick's approach to his material--an understanding that mortality demands a raucous rather than reverent response.
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