THEATER : The Success of a Subversive Wit : Paul Rudnick writes over such a wide range--all's fair game, from 'The Addams Family' to AIDS. Witness his hit play 'Jeffrey,' in which he grapples with love in the plague years and actually makes it funny

Patrick Pacheco is a free-lance writer based in New York.

According to playwright Paul Rudnick, it wasn't 40 years of nuclear brinkmanship that brought down the Berlin Wall. It was Vogue magazine.

"Those people behind the Iron Curtain didn't want the vote," Rudnick said with characteristic insouciance. "They wanted Levi's, cappuccino bars, miniseries. There is some natural human yearning directed toward glitter and frivolity, and that's pretty healthy, if you ask me."

For much of his career, the prolific 36-year-old playwright, novelist, essayist and screenwriter has been only too happy to oblige such yearnings. After all, his early novel "I'll Take It" was not the Angst -ridden cri de coeur one expects from young writers, but rather a romp about middle-aged women and "the greatest family sacrament": shopping.

His 1991 Broadway comedy "I Hate Hamlet," starring Nicol Williamson, poked fun at the pretensions of High Art, as have his essays in Premiere magazine written under the pseudonym Libby Gelman-Waxner. And, according to the film's producer, Rudnick's uncredited rewrites on "The Addams Family" were to a large extent responsible for that movie's success--and to follow up, his subversive wit goes full tilt in his screenplay for the "Addams" sequel, "Addams Family Values."

But it's his comedy hit "Jeffrey"--which opens Sept. 28 at the Westwood Playhouse with most of its original New York cast--that best demonstrates Rudnick's light but wild touch. There are glitter and frivolity, to be sure, in this series of vignettes detailing the follies of a group of young, gay New Yorkers. Take, for example, the title character's description of his career as an actor-caterer-waiter: "I get to go everywhere with my shiny black shoes and my garment bag. I've been to private homes, museums, tents in Central Park--it's like gay National Guard. If you're anyone at all, you've ignored me. But I don't mind, because I've tried on your fur."

"The Addamses sail through life on a kind of polished and deliberate ennui, and the characters in 'Jeffrey' would most certainly appreciate their carefree esprit de cemetery," Rudnick said, looking trim in a snug pair of jeans and sitting in his Greenwich Village apartment crammed with the rococo bargains of his manic buying sprees. "Morticia and Gomez are the most permissive and doting of parents, but it's a family that works. The only thing that truly appalls them is a kind of wholesome good cheer."

Indeed, in the sequel, Morticia gives birth to a baby, Pubert, and Wednesday and Pugsley's reaction gives new meaning to the phrase "sibling rivalry."

"Charles Addams was a genius," Rudnick said, referring to the creator of the New Yorker cartoons on which the movies are based. "He understood that Americans needed an antidote to Donna Reed. This is one family you don't have to worry about keeping up with. It was such a relief to write a big pop studio movie in which you're not expected to be wholesome."

"Paul's writing is warm yet subversive, which makes him a very natural fit for Charles Addams," said Scott Rudin, the producer of "The Addams Family" and its sequel, who has known Rudnick for a decade. "He likes to fly at convention. He'll push the envelope of good taste as far is it will go."

"Jeffrey" also provides relief from propriety, but the stakes are far higher. For the comedy is not simply a gay '90s Wildean farce. The bantering here extends beyond the gym and boutique to the hospital rooms and memorial services. "Jeffrey," remarkably, is a romantic sex comedy about AIDS. Its blithe spirit follows the adventures of a randy hero who vows celibacy when the specter of the disease turns his encounters into nerve-racking negotiations. Of course, it's just then that he meets Mr. Right, an HIV-positive golden boy with a less-than-golden future.

The popular and critical success of the show, which is now in its seventh month at Off Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre, has served to lower the eyebrows that were raised when it was first announced. A comedy--a sex comedy--about AIDS? Indeed, the very idea might recall the reverse psychology of Max Bialystock's bright idea in the movie "The Producers": to make "Springtime for Hitler," a musical meant to be a flop.

"Agents were actually warning their clients away from the project," Rudnick recalled. "There was a lot of suspicion about 'Jeffrey,' not only because it involved so many gay characters but also because everyone thought that the subject matter could get us in so much trouble."

As with so much of his work, Rudnick said he had been moved by "secret guilty thoughts" to take a bead on AIDS through his comic periscope. Just as he wrote "I Hate Hamlet" to appeal to anyone who in the "secret gleeful corner of their souls" felt that the classics could be a big bloody bore, so he wrote "Jeffrey" with the suspicion that others may have been struck, as he has been, by the humor and irreverence displayed in hospitals and at funerals by so many mourners, dissolving them into tears--of laughter.

"Gloom doesn't help anyone," Rudnick said. "It's been the general rule that you don't use wit in the face of tragedy because it might trivialize it. That's crazy. It's especially important at those times. You acknowledge the awfulness. I mean, it's not 'Oh, AIDS, la-de-da.' But you don't let the disease rule. If you do, then it wins. And that really is intolerable."

The challenge, Rudnick said, was not only to test the limits of taste, but also to discover a style that could accommodate many shifting planes of humor and tragedy, fantasy and reality. In "Jeffrey," wisecracking young men are suddenly fighting for their lives, Mother Teresa is sighted in front of Blockbuster Video, Jeffrey's conservative Midwestern parents discuss the various attributes of gay porn stars, and even Mayor David N. Dinkins manages to make an appearance--in chaps--at an AIDS hoedown at the Waldorf-Astoria.

When he finished the play in August, 1992, Rudnick got up from his desk (where he types on an electric typewriter with one finger) to discover that he had created an unflinching look at urban-gay style and sexuality. Along with its satirical takes on "gym rats," New Age gurus, horny Catholic priests and safe-sex erotica, "Jeffrey" explores a fear of intimacy made all the more critical because of the threat of illness and death.

But, he wondered, would anybody dare to laugh? Especially in its initial limited run at the WPA Theatre, whose subscribers are skewed older and straighter than most theatergoers?

Before facing the WPA audience, "Jeffrey" had its premiere, sort of, for Rudnick's father, Norman, a New Jersey physicist who at the time was suffering from lung cancer. "I knew that he would never live to see the play performed," recalled the younger Rudnick. "So I gave him a copy. He loved it. He laughed a lot."

The response was seconded months later when the play began a limited showcase at the WPA. Buoyed by nearly unanimous critical acclaim, the initial run sold out, followed by the move to Off Broadway. "Once we realized that the audience wasn't about to organize a posse to tie me up and throw me in the Hudson, even my mother was able to relax," Rudnick quipped.

"Paul knows how to write a good joke, but he doesn't skimp on the serious side of the story," said Christopher Ashley, the 29-year-old director of "Jeffrey." "Once you're laughing at and with and around these characters, it's much easier to follow them just about anywhere they take you."

"I never write completely black comedy," said Rudnick, eager to differentiate his comic vision from that of Joe Orton, the '50s British playwright whose scathing satires skewered a hopelessly absurd world. "I find too much in life that gives me pleasure. I understand that impulse to create comedy out of anger or a lust for revenge, but I think that tends to diminish it, making comedy a symptom rather than a calling. I was taught to treat comedy as an antidote to despair, an expression of hope."

One longtime Rudnick friend, costume designer William Ivey Long, observed: "Paul is a romantic and always has been. I believe in poetry and art and a good pair of shoes myself, but I'm more cynical. With all the artifice and charm and cleverness, Paul's belief in love and life is also very real. I love the awkwardness of it."

Rudnick's calling was shaped during a seemingly idyllic childhood as one of two boys in a Piscataway, N.J., family. He shared a passion for the theater with his mother, Selma, and Rudnick recalls that his family's values included an emphasis on education and culture--and cleanliness. "If my brother and I turned out to be serial killers but with clean fingernails, there'd be an upside," Rudnick said.

Although both elder Rudnicks were second-generation Polish Jews who grew up with a sense of dread lurking around the corner, they apparently were determined to liberate their children from the fear of the evil eye and substitute instead what their son described as a "kind of hard work and earned happiness."

"I mean, what's the alternative?" Rudnick asks. "Unless you really enjoy whining--and who doesn't? But American youth at its worst has this terrible sense of entitlement, that the world owes them a living, acclaim and a publicist."

Armed with an unbridled optimism, Rudnick sailed through childhood. Although he says he was a "sissy," he escaped punishment. "Now, I'd be beaten daily," he said. "But then, Jews and queers were considered some kind of exotic Eastern joke. It takes examples to promote active hatred, and everyone was too busy beating up on blacks and Italians in my high school to pay me much mind."

Even if the school bullies had tried to inflict pain, Rudnick most probably would have disarmed them with quick comebacks. When asked what was the most traumatic event of his youth, the garrulous playwright turned pensive: "The day I realized that Mallomars were a seasonal food," he said, referring to the chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies. "They melted, so you couldn't get them in summer."

Rudnick headed for Yale after discovering that Cole Porter was among its illustrious alumni. Majoring in drama, he fell in with a dashing clique--playwrights Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato and Wendy Wasserstein and William Ivey Long--and, upon graduation, followed the fleet to New York, where he went on the town nearly every night. "I was a combination of Moss Hart and 'That Girl,' " Rudnick said.

"I always thought that Paul had to be holographic," said Wasserstein. "He could be in five places at one time, be incredibly well-read and still show up for his friends. His energy is quite amazing. It says very good things about a diet of Mallomars."

In between stints as a writer of book-jacket blurbs, Rudnick also managed to write plays. In 1982, "Poor Little Lambs," directed by Jack Hofsiss and starring Kevin Bacon, Bronson Pinchot and Blanche Baker, was presented Off Off Broadway. The story about a young co-ed trying to break into the all-male Yale singing group the Whiffenpoofs received mixed notices, had a respectable four-month run and attracted the attention of Hollywood producers who saw it as vehicle for the then-wildly popular "Brat Pack." The play continued to be re-optioned through the years, and, when action-adventure movies became the hot trend, it was reinvented as a gang-war epic.

This first taste of "development hell"--the film has never been made and the rights have reverted to the playwright--didn't bother Rudnick, who has welcomed his various development deals over the years as a lucrative education in screenwriting.

"I have little patience with whining screenwriters," he said, noting that one can get a reputation in Hollywood without actually having anything produced. "Everybody knows about this imaginary baby and people keep throwing showers for it."

One baby that did make it to the screen was "Sister Act." A self-confessed "Midlerite," Rudnick conceived the project in 1987 as a vehicle for Bette Midler, but the star was replaced by Whoopi Goldberg just before shooting was to begin. By that time, nearly all the satirical elements in the script had been boiled down through numerous rewrites by other writers, enough so that Rudnick no longer felt that the work was his. He asked to have his name removed and eventually agreed with Disney on the pseudonym Joseph Howard, although Rudnick said his first choice was for the credit to read "Screenplay by Goofy."

"It wasn't my work," he said when asked if he regretted the pseudonym after the film became a runaway hit. "The success wasn't attributable to me, so I don't feel I should take credit. Joseph Howard's career, however, is doing very, very well."

Among his happier experiences is the "overhaul" he did for producer Scott Rudin on "The Addams Family," the ghoulishly irreverent 1991 hit comedy starring Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston, and his work on the sequel to be released in November, for which he takes full credit. Rudnick relished the assignment of striking just the right comic note in the adventures of these cannibals, murderers and necrophiliacs, who do their dirty little deeds with such elan.

Indeed, it now seems impossible to imagine that such an assignment could have gone to anyone else. "I really do have the soul of the worst vulgarian," the writer conceded with a flamboyant flourish of the hand to encompass the bibelots and tchotchkes overflowing his attic duplex apartment, including forbiddingly stern busts of ambiguous sexuality and sculpture and drawings of mythical and biblical subjects, including St. George and the Dragon.

Once occupied by John Barrymore, the apartment served as inspiration for "I Hate Hamlet," in which a television actor conjures up the ghost of the great Barrymore. The play, which received mixed notices, might well have run longer than five months had its mercurial star, Nicol Williamson, not misbehaved quite so outrageously onstage: He created headlines after one performance in which the sword fight he had with co-star Evan Handler became all too real, causing the young actor to exit stage right and continue out the theater.

It is from this apartment too that Rudnick continues to sally forth poking fun at the bombast of culture and society. Referring to his novel "I'll Take It," he said: "It's not 'The Sun Also Rises,' but I firmly believe that middle-aged women at Loehmann's are as meaningful as any bullfight in Pamplona. I'll be a much more valuable writer if I pursue things that others have overlooked or consider unworthy."

He intends to do just that with what he calls a "blind" deal at Paramount, as well as a potential screenplay for "Jeffrey." There's also his new play, "The Naked Truth," to be produced next spring at the WPA. He's hesitant to say much about the work except that it has equally strong gay and straight characters and that at its core is a heterosexual romance. Said Chris Ashley, who will direct the comedy: "There is a great, great role for an older woman."

More than likely, the play will reflect Rudnick's characteristic "gay urban aesthetic," which he and other writers, like Tony Kushner in "Angels in America," have helped to define in a plethora of recent plays about gay subjects. It is arguable that the mainstream acceptance of both "Angels" and "Jeffrey" has served to blur the distinction between "gay" and "straight" plays, even while it has opened a debate within the homosexual community as to whether such definitions are limited and misleading. In fact, both plays have been attacked by some activists as being guilty of presenting stereotypes.

"There is tremendous diversity within the gay community," Rudnick acknowledged, "and there are gay men who wouldn't be caught dead with a copy of 'Finian's Rainbow.' But urban America has created a wonderful gay tradition of wit and style, and it's great to celebrate that in all its variety without worrying about its causes or its contagions.

"It's not even limited to gender," he added. "Half of the straight people I know sound like gay men because it's such a useful dialect and one so geared to comedy. I expect any minute now that President Clinton will take one look at Saddam Hussein and say, "Please, darling, that hat has got to go."

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