Review

Paul Rudnick's 'Big Night': Comedy and crisis in the awards machine of Hollywood

In a posh Beverly Hills hotel suite overflowing with gift baskets, Michael, the central character of Paul Rudnick’s tentative new comedy, “Big Night,” is anxiously primping for what may be the most important evening of his life.

A dedicated gay actor whose career has balanced Shakespeare in the provinces with “Law & Order” guest spots, Michael (played with amiable earnestness by Brian Hutchison) is up for an Oscar for supporting actor. Heading off to the ceremony that will decide his Hollywood future, he wonders what expression he should feign if he loses to Matt Damon. But he’s informed by his young and excitable new agent, Cary (Max Jenkins), that he has a good shot at winning. Somehow this only makes him more nervous.

The play, which opened Saturday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre under the direction of Walter Bobbie, recalls in its bantering setup one of the playlets in Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” the one that looks in on a visiting couple from London as they prepare for the wife’s own big night and then cope with the bitter marital aftermath after returning from the Academy Awards empty-handed.

But Rudnick, the author of the plays “I Hate Hamlet,” “Jeffrey” and “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” the screenplay “In & Out” and countless New Yorker humor columns, populates his five-star suite more densely. This ostentatious room with an entrancing L.A. view becomes an LGBTQ microcosm as visitors arrive full of congratulations, special requests and dizzying surprises.

The first to show up is Michael’s transgender nephew, Eddie (Tom Phelan), who’s majoring in queer studies at UCLA with “a thesis concentration in non-binary gender expression.” He wants Michael to use his platform to make a statement about Hollywood’s lack of diversity and “historic abuse” of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally and pansexual” people.

Cary, who’s out and proud himself, respects Eddie’s alphabet of political commitments but advises Michael not to shoot himself in the foot just as his career is about to take off. He’s working on a lucrative multi-movie deal. The producers of “Star Wars” want to cast Michael, who, turns out, has a thing for light sabers. This is no time for criticizing the academy.

By this point, Michael’s mother, Esther (Wendie Malick), has shown up dressed to the nines with breaking news of her own. I don’t want to give too much away, but Esther is traveling with a new friend, Eleanor (Kecia Lewis), an African American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who brings some intersectionality to the political debate Michael would rather not be having.

Eleanor inquires what pronouns Eddie prefers. (“I’m fine with he, they, hir, zir, or zee,” he answers.) Eddie asks Eleanor whether she prefers “black, African American or person of color.” (“Dealer’s choice” is her freewheeling reply). Rudnick could probably have spun an entire play lovingly satirizing this kind of politically correct social etiquette, but he recognizes that homophobia and hate crimes are more pressing concerns.

“Big Night” takes a serious turn when Michael discovers the reason his lover, Austin (Luke Macfarlane), is unaccountably late. The situation Rudnick constructs is all too plausible in an age when mass violence and displays of intolerance are regularly in the news, but the change in dramatic register isn’t smoothly pulled off.

The characters react to information that shocks and upsets but doesn’t have the power to upend them. Scenarios remain theatrical hypotheticals. The mood grows somber, but the comedy doesn’t allow the consequences of what occurs to sink in. Unreality reigns.

“Big Night” plays like a speculative humor essay on urgent themes. The interplay of perspectives is lively, but the characterizations are “types” led more by laugh lines than by psychology. The playwriting makes it hard to believe in the world inside this hotel suite, which (as designed by John Lee Beatty) seems more Las Vegas than Beverly Hills.

Comedy, as practiced by Molière, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, provides a forum for the bandying of difficult and dangerous ideas. Realism needn’t be the priority, but Bobbie’s production plays against genre, keeping the zaniness on an unnecessarily low flame.

“Big Night” doesn’t accelerate like a farce. There are curious lulls in which the actors appear stranded, waiting for rescue from Rudnick’s inexhaustible wit after something more dramatically meaningful fails to show up.

On the plus side, there’s Malick in a gorgeous evening dress (the magic of costume designer William Ivey Long) looking impossibly young and doing her best to turn the stereotype of the Jewish mother into something contemporary and original. Yes, she foists food at her loved ones in moments of crisis. And no, she never stops worrying about careers, grades, designer discounts and awards. But she plays Esther first and foremost as a woman with her own desires, needs and convictions.

If the play forces upon the character sentimental speeches that say nothing, the fault lies with the playwright, who doesn’t know how to resolve a situation that even his own characters have lost faith in.

Rudnick ought to write to his own strengths. More camp from Jenkins’ Cary wouldn’t be amiss.

Cary, who grew up in Beverly Hills wanting to be an agent, recalls his bar mitzvah at the Hotel Bel-Air “with calla lilies, a vegan buffet and twin Soviet gymnasts from Cirque du Soleil.” The theme? “The films of Jennifer Aniston,” he answers, defensively clarifying in the next beat, “The early films!”

“Big Night” may be earnest in patches, not entirely convincing and a bit thin, but Rudnick hasn’t lost his talent to amuse. The play is funny even when it stumbles and stalls.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Big Night’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct 8 (call for exceptions)

Tickets: $25 to $70 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission).

mark.swed@latimes.com

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