Brian Hutchison and Max Jenkins in the world premiere of Big Night, directed by Walter Bobbie, at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Brian Hutchison and Max Jenkins in the world premiere of Big Night, directed by Walter Bobbie, at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre.
(© Craig Schwartz)

While it is clear that the recent tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the regularity of mass shootings have weighed heavily on comedy writer Paul Rudnick's mind, his distillation of these heady conversations about gun violence and mental health come wrapped in too shiny of a package in the form of his play, Big Night. A clumsy, poorly structured treatise instead of an organic, thought-provoking comedy-drama, Big Night fails to connect because the creators' altruistic intentions are heavy-handed.

In a stylish Beverly Hills hotel suite, Michael (Brian Hutchison), an actor who struggled on the sidelines for years, has finally arrived at stardom, favored to win Best Supporting Actor at this evening's Academy Awards. His new agent (Max Jenkins) keeps his energy pumped. His mother (Wendie Malick) tries desperately to keep the evening about her son, even though her natural impulse is to constantly turn the spotlight on herself. Michael's trans nephew (Tom Phelan) wants Michael to win and use his speech to attack Hollywood for its lack of gender diversity. Michael waits for his big night, growing impatient that his boyfriend, Austin (Luke Macfarlane), has yet to arrive. The evening is filled with frivolity and light humor until tragedy strikes, turning what should have been a glorious night into an evening of bloodshed.

Rudnick's quips are solid, reserving the best jokes for the young, hungry agent and the glamourous but self-obsessed Jewish mother. While creating a modern drawing room comedy à la Noël Coward, the play moves steadily along. But when things shift into a political drama, Rudnick appears out of his league. Rudnick usually writes live-action cartoons with very broad strokes, a format that is inappropriate for this political forum. Instead of translating the tragic events so the audience can identify with the people involved, all the characters turn into soapboxes, pontificating instead of relating. Though all the characters are on the same political side, they continue to explain to each other obvious talking points, with all the harrowing situations left offstage. The thesis that catastrophes make superficial events appear meaningless is valid, but Rudnick fails to turn this into stimulating drama. He wisely has main characters directly affected by the tragedy, but their reactions are awkward and stilted.

Because Malick and Jenkins receive the best lines, they shine the most. When Jenkins accidentally belittles his client's significance because he's a supporting actor, the moment pointedly illustrates how Hollywood translates worth. Malick is hilarious as the older woman spreading her sexual wings. She walks a fine line between being enthralled for her children and obsessed with her own needs, and never hijacks the humor. As the elegant Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Kecia Lewis spills out her lines like a grande dame sipping a glass of champagne. She's always in command of the room. Phelan and Macfarlane are earnest, but they're hamstrung by Rudnick's failure to fully flesh out their characters. Instead, they're always walking political platforms and their dialogue sounds overrehearsed. Hutchison, strangely, plays the most superfluous character of the bunch, even though he is supposed to be the main character. The script can't decide if he's noble or spoiled, so he winds up being a nonentity, and because of this, his performance is negligible.

Director Walter Bobbie does not handle the actors' staging well, and so distills the tension. When the characters hover over a computer screen watching in horror, the audience has a wall shoved between them and the action. When the characters later process what has happened, they wander around the stage aimlessly. Visually, the designers exquisitely land the feeling of Hollywood affluence. John Lee Beatty's set is a sophisticatedly decorated oasis above the city, a posh living room filled with expensive furniture and littered with flowers, gift bags, and champagne bottles. William Ivey Long's costumes, particularly the sleek dresses for both Malick and Lewis, belong on any red carpet.

In trying to reveal the trauma beneath Tinseltown, Big Night misses its target by a mile. Rudnick may have a great ear as a humorist, but he's tone deaf when it comes to the necessary pitch-black humor or absurdism that could have turned the evening into a more pulsating, award-worthy experience.