George Grizzard and Christine Baranski in Regrets Only
(© Joan Marcus)
George Grizzard and Christine Baranski in Regrets Only
(© Joan Marcus)
The rap on Paul Rudnick has always been that, for all his genius as a writer of hilarious one-liners, he can't write a cogent play with a beginning, middle, and, most importantly, an ending. The promise of Jeffrey, his early, award-winning play, has been generally followed by brilliant comic high-concepts that didn't pay off -- such asThe Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, about the first two people on earth, Adam and Steve. But now that his new play, Regrets Only, has opened at Manhattan Theatre Club, Rudnick has finally graduated with full honors from gifted joke-writer to esteemed and still hilarious playwright.

The plot is set in the motion one momentous evening in a lavish Upper East Side apartment. Socialite Tibby McCullough (Christine Baranski) is preparing to go out with her best friend, legendary gay designer Hank Hadley (George Grizzard), whose companion of nearly 40 years has recently died. Tibby's daughter Spencer (Diane Davis), an ambitious lawyer, comes home and announces her engagement; minutes later, her father Jack (David Rasche), a wildly rich, liberal New York lawyer, gets a call from the President of the United States to help craft a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. When Tibby and Spencer support Jack's decision to go to Washington, Hank decides to take action -- in a very unusual way.

The play is a miraculous marriage (that word is used advisedly) of caricature and character. Rudnick has managed to create six comically extreme people -- including Myra, the McCullough's Jewish maid, played with a zest bordering on zeal by Jackie Hoffman, and Tibby's shallow mother, Marietta, played by Siân Phillips -- who also exhibit genuine human emotions. While the quips fly fast and furiously, Rudnick so effectively plots the piece that the jokes serve a thematic point. Tibby, who's essentially a silly society wife, is eventually given stature. Jack is humbled but not broken; rather, he is educated. Even Spencer and Marietta have their epiphanies.

Rudnick has written a smart play with a several rich conflicts waiting to explode. The only question for the audience is whether he will find a way to tie all of his points and plot strands together before the final blackout -- and the answer is a resounding yes. His major plot twist is no more realistic than his comically overdrawn characters, but that's the brilliance of the piece; the characters and the plot are in perfect balance.

One of the reasons that the play is so successful is Christopher Ashley's understated direction. Rudnick has written plenty of flamboyant material, particularly for Hoffman's outlandishly comic maid, but most of it is presented in a distinctly matter-of-fact style. Whenever anyone is acting nutty, the other characters generally shrug it off rather than try to top it, which allows for the laughs but keeps the play grounded in reality.

Further enhancing the production is Grizzard, who brings a much-needed seriousness to the comedy. Baranski, for her part, gets to toss off Rudnick's funniest lines with a combination of perfect comic timing and to-die-for attitude that leaves the audience howling. Even more impressively, she shows grit through the glitz, and that's a beautiful thing to behold.

The show's design elements -- gorgeous gowns by William Ivey Long, a beautiful apartment by Michael Yeargan, and evocative lighting by Natasha Katz -- combine to lift Rudnick's play to a level of real artfulness. Regrets Only signals Rudnick's emergence as a serious writer of comedy.