Peter Bartlett and Linda Lavin in The New Century
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Peter Bartlett and Linda Lavin in The New Century
(© T. Charles Erickson)
It's not every day that a comedy writer gets a laugh on every line he intends to be thigh-slappingly funny, but Paul Rudnick does so with Pride and Joy, the first of the four playlets that make up The New Century, now at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.

Rudnick is getting no small measure of help from director Nicholas Martin and certainly from Linda Lavin, who appears in the opening entry as chatty Long Island matron Helene Nadler. Wearing an expensive coiffure and shiny suit that costume designer William Ivey Long knew would be just the thing, Mrs. Nadler is addressing a very particular support group about the diverse sexual leanings of her three children. Explaining what an uncommonly understanding mother she is, she lobs so many comments she knows are funny that by the time she finishes, audiences are likely to be breathless.

It'd be spoiling the occasion to quote many of Rudnick's delectable verbal hors d'oeuvres, but simply to give the gist, here's one. Mentioning that her son, Ronnie, was a Will and Grace fan, the generously confiding Mrs. Nadler says, "I loved that show, it was adorable, it was like if Pottery Barn sold people." True, towards the end of the sketch, Rudnick sends out her studded-leather-crazed son (Mike Doyle) for a few minutes for an extended sight gag that doesn't entirely pull its weight. But Lavin's comedy technique is so consistently well-honed, it has all the cutting-edge of a guillotine blade.

Much the same goes for wonderful Jayne Houdyshell in Crafty, Rudnick's third rib-tickler (which begins after the intermission). She plays Barbara Ellen Diggs, a Decatur, Illinois woman funneling all the joys and woes of her life into crafts. Showing off the toaster cozy she's knitted to look like a tuxedo and several other unexpected kitschy items of the sort found at any church jumble sale, the delightfully open Barbara Ellen not only champions her hometown crafts prowess, she even gets in a few digs at New York City. She knows the Big Apple, because -- here's where Rudnick turns more serious -- she spent time there when her gay son was succumbing to AIDS. In raising that subject, the crafty playwright infuses this one-act with more gravitas that he chose to give Pride and Joy, and his intentions pay off beautifully as the routine develops.

In between those pieces, Rudnick slips in Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach. This previously-seen one-act takes place at a Florida access-television studio where the swishy title character (Peter Bartlett) talks about his life as an old-school invert in colorful clothes. To flesh out his points, he often calls on his hunky "devoted companion" Shane (Doyle, not only unmasked but eventually completely unclothed). Unfortunately, the segment pales after Mrs. Nadler has her way with the audience.

Moreover, when Mr. Charles mentions that "today's modern homosexuals find me an embarrassment," he puts his finger squarely on the vignette's problem. Mr. Charles isn't so much an embarrassment as a reminder of a now-dated stock figure. Shane's too-frequent interruptions aren't much of a help in gaining laughs, nor is the late-in-the-act appearance of station receptionist Joann Milderry (Christy Pusz), whose request of Mr. Charles is too unlikely to be truly amusing. Moreover, in perhaps wanting too much to repeat his earlier triumph in the role, Bartlett is now pushing for effects.

Rudnick's final playlet, The New Century shrewdly brings all five characters into a Manhattan hospital maternity ward, where Nadler's granddaughter has just been born. Here's where the playwright -- always ready to champion supposed deviations from the norm -- makes his dramatic point: The new century is about acceptance. Not only is he probably right, he's certainly wise to make his statement with a finale dance -- and in such good humor. Thanks to Rudnick's wildly successful way with a collection of hilarious oddball characters, The New Cenutry is likely to play to very happy crowds