photo: T. Charles Erickson
How can you tell that the man sitting near you at the theatre is gay? A) he's saving the Playbill and B) he's awake. So go the quips from the title character in Mr. Charles, a one-act previously seen downtown a few seasons ago and now flanked by two new monologues - one starring Linda Lavin and the other Jane Houdyshell - to form a Paul Rudnick evening. (There's also a fourth piece, which brings all of the characters from the three preceding plays together, but it's generally banal and the less said about it the better). The Mr. Charles play, in which Peter Bartlett reprises the limp-wristed title role with delicious panache, is the only one that has something interesting to say - namely, that the social acceptance of gays has erased a once-prevalent brand of eccentric cultured pansy - but the Lavin and Houdyshell monologues make up in snappy comedy what they lack in substance. Lavin is marvelous and has perhaps never been funnier as a Jewish matron from Massapequa whose tolerance is pushed to its beleaguered limit by her childrens' "alternative lifestyles": the fun comes from watching the character try to stick with the program of unconditional love and acceptance no matter what the kids throw at her. The monologue performed (to astonishing perfection) by Houdyshell gets off to what seems like a rocky start when it appears that Rudnick is patronizing the character (we're asked to laugh at the macaroni-and-glue crafts that she makes, for example) but soon the playwright neatly inverts the message so that it pokes fun at supposedly sophisticated tastemakers. That slyness made it my eventual favorite of these one-acts.