Peter Bartlett in Rude Entertainment(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Peter Bartlett in Rude Entertainment
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, as written by Paul Rudnick and played by Peter Bartlett with luxurious gayness, was one of the highlights at the 1998 Ensemble Studio Theatre one-act marathon; now the show returns as one of the three parts of Rude Entertainment. Answering viewer's questions on his cable show about who homosexuals are and what they want, the eponymous protagonist explains it all to you in much the same way that Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius explains the mysteries of Catholicism--with replies as hilariously skewed as they are trenchant and final.

That Rudnick's gleeful Mr. Charles is very like Durang's officious sister--and might not have strutted himself quite as he does had Durang not pointed the way--hardly matters, not when the results are as rib-tickling as Rudnick's. Actually, Rudnick may have learned the most important dramaturgical lesson Durang had to teach: Have fun with a character and don't make the mistake of trying to develop a play around her/him. When Mary Ignatius gets involved with some discontented former students, Durang's soufflé collapses. Mr. Charles, with the occasional help of a blank pretty boy whom he's apprenticed (so to speak), just reads and quips, reads and quips; then, when he and the muscle-bound Shane have had their dishy say, he vanishes behind a drapery.

Garbed in a casual and colorful Palm Beach jacket, slacks, and a jaunty neckerchief, Mr. Charles gives his opinion on everything up to and through gays in the military, which he's against: "Make remarks, not war," he advises. He explains that he has little to say about lesbians but, before putting the topic to rest, notes that "a gay woman is not simply Paul Bunyan with a cat." He also gives a one-minute history of gay theater, complete with gestures and heavy breathing. His evocation of Angels in America, wherein he flaps his arms like wings, is especially funny--at once a tribute to Tony Kushner and a reminder that Kushner and Rudnick have been, for all intents and purposes, at different ends of the gay theater spectrum. While the Angels in America author is almost boisterously political in his choice and treatment of subjects, Rudnick to date has usually gone after the laughs first and let the political statements fall where they may. Not that Rudnick and Mr. Charles don't have a strong message or two to make, the strongest being on the unappetizing subject of homosexual homophobia. With a few tart put-downs, Mr. Charles deftly dismisses a "let's fit in" letter writer. Choreographing the life he leads as if the basic step were a swish, the small-time television personality celebrates his eccentricities rather than choosing to disappear into the mainstream. He's Quentin Crisp with an American accent.

As Mr. Charles, Bartlett is impeccably amusing. This skilled actor, for whom the author admits he tailors parts, has mastered the rubbery face, flying arms, swiveling hips, and limp wrists that were once the definition of gay behavior. Often, he milks yucks simply by arching his eyebrows with a "did you ever?" gaze, holding it for long seconds as his palms rise to top off the expression of mocking disbelief. It may be that Bartlett elicits as many belly laughs with silences as he does with his lines. He's so good that he and Mr. Charles could land a real cable show--and not just on a local access channel.

The problem with one-act plays is that, no matter how effective they are, there's not much you can do with them once the marathons are over--unless, as Rudnick has done, you write a few more and have yourself an evening's fare. Unfortunately, the two playlets he has attached to Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach--like tin cans dangling from the bumper of a Rolls Royce--aren't felicitous. They're so unrewarding that discussion of them should normally be brief; unfortunately, one of them is not just lame but somehow damaging.

Peter Bartlett, Harriet Harris, and Neal Huff in Rude Entertainment(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Peter Bartlett, Harriet Harris, and Neal Huff in Rude Entertainment
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The simply feeble item is Very Special Needs, Rudnick's attempt to be cute on the subject of wealthy gay men who decide to adopt, say, Romanian or Guatemalan children. Architect Trent and men's wear designer Timmy, who live in such sleekness they've got a Franz Kline on their living-room wall, welcome new daughter, Katinka. The rub is that the little girl, who says she's from Slomakia, isn't so little; decked out in smock and babushka, she looks middle-aged. After throwing a couple of tantrums and putting the two men through other trials, she turns out to be forty-something and in no way from Slomakia. Rudnick's opinion about adoptive homosexual couples, not to mention where he thinks the humor lies in the issue, is never revealed. Whatever it's about, Very Special Needs does seem to have a happy ending: Trent (who didn't want to adopt), Tim (who did), and Katinka (who wanted to be adopted) link arms and dance.

More troublesome is On the Fence, the title of which is an annoying pun. Matthew Shepard, dying early on a Wyoming morning, is visited by Eleanor Roosevelt, who has come to prepare him for heaven. Determined to stay alive, the Shepard figure is so resistant that Eleanor has to call for help from a harsher intermediary--comedian Paul Lynde. After the three tangle for awhile, Shepard joins the other two in deciding to take revenge on the living: The house lights go up and they draw pistols, threatening to shoot members of the audience.

It's not just that pointing guns at ticket-buyers has become a cliché, most recently seen in Fuck You, or Dead Pee Holes; in this instance it registers as a hollow ploy. It's Rudnick thinking that he ought to be serious, be political, give playwrights like Tony Kushner a run for their money. Bad idea. Rudnick seems to be questioning what the American public--specifically , the gay and lesbian population--has turned Shepard into. Perhaps he believes that making the late student a poster boy for victimization is too easy, too handy a way to pigeonhole him and then either ignore him or use him to soothe anxious consciences. (The current issue of Out magazine has Shepard on the cover with an accompanying article detailing him as impetus for properties like Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project.)

Or maybe Rudnick has something else entirely in mind. But to repudiate the use of Shepard in this way is the only reason I can guess for this misguided, long-winded, abstruse enterprise, in which Roosevelt's possible lesbianism is fodder for risible speculation and Lynde is depicted as a reformed alcoholic who's still so mean that he's doing God's dirty work. Rudnick deserves to have his wrist slapped for having a clumsy go at people unable to defend themselves. It's simply bad manners. To reap nothing more than cheap laughs, he reveals too much unpleasant information--or misinformation--about the dearly departed.

Frequent Rudnick collaborator Christopher Ashley directs the three plays with appropriate directness. Bartlett, Neal Huff, and Harriet Harris are the eager and willing performers. In addition to his triumphant Mr. Charles, Bartlett remains grounded as the reluctant adoptive father; and as Paul Lynde in muu-muu and wig, he's a worthy sound-alike. (Sometimes, though, his Lynde is more like Nathan Lane.) Huff, after getting his giggles as Shane, does a credible job as proud new papa Timmy and also as the startled Matthew Shepard. Harris does Katinka with an unspecific Middle European accent, looking more like Little Lulu than anyone might have predicted was possible. Her Eleanor Roosevelt is teddibly English in diction and accent.

Allen Moyer designed the sets, and maybe he's having a joke in putting the Shepard play in a box frame: Is he saying that the young man has now been framed in more ways than one? Gregory A. Gale's costumes include an animal skin stole for Mrs. Roosevelt. Rudnick's Rude Entertainment is rude, all right. And crude. But only its first segment qualifies as entertainment.