By Lisa Lyons
Award-winning playwright Paul Rudnick is known for his comic takes on gay culture set against the backdrop of everyday life – his hit play/film “Jeffrey” examined the modern day dating dilemma of its protagonist; but his latest effort “Big Night”, now having its world premiere at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, tries to step up a level. This time Rudnick sets the personal travails against the larger global issue of gay genocide. It is an often-uncomfortable mix of humor and horror, but if anyone can carry it off, it is CTG and the talented cast.
Journeyman actor Michael (an engaging Bruce Hutchison) is pacing like a caged tiger in his luxury suite in Beverly Hills prior to the Oscar telecast, so full of conflicting emotions at his Best Supporting Actor nomination, he can barely contain himself.
His new, ambitious young agent Cary (played to perfection by Max Jenkins) tries to calm his thoroughbred down by confiding his latest coup for Michael: a featured role in the next four “Star Wars” films. (Hey, even gay men have Jedi knight obsessions.)
While Michael nervously awaits the arrival of his partner, social activist Austin (the charming Luke Macfarlane) who is delayed on business at the Hollywood LGBTQ Center, family members begin to arrive for the pre-show festivities. First is Michael’s transgender nephew Eddie (a winsome Tom Phelan) who wants Uncle Mike to use his acceptance speech as a platform to blast the Hollywood community for their deplorable treatment of gay actors and characters. Cary nervously points out to Michael that tonight’s NOT the right moment to bite the hands feeding him.
The next arrival comes in the fabulous form of Esther, Michael’s oh-so-glamorous mother who wants to make tonight all about her talented son, but can’t stop herself from turning the spotlight on herself and her new relationship. The divine Wendie Malick plays the hell out of Esther, floating around the suite in a sparkling backless gown, aphorisms dripping from her lips while passing the appetizers; my only quibble is that Malick is waaaay too young to play Hutchison’s mother.
Esther has brought along Eleanor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet (a sassy Kecia Lewis channeling her best Maya Angelou persona), who has captured Esther’s admiration and more. Her own experiences dealing with discrimination make an impact on the group, especially her handling of the loss of her daughter in a drive-by shooting.
The plot takes an abrupt swing, however, as a chilling act of brutality occurs at the LGBTQ Center just as the ceremony begins. The shock and horror unfolds on live television and casts a pall over what should be the ultimate celebration. Austin has been caught in the crossfire at the youth center but stays to help survivors, arriving finally at the hotel suite disheveled, in shock and grateful/guilty to be alive. Luke Macfarlane hits all the notes of Austin’s character and you are grateful that Michael has such a solid love in his life on this particular big night.
Director Walter Bobbie orchestrates the highs and lows of this wild evening, but there are moments that jar: some audience members caught themselves when they laughed at a witty zinger just seconds after a horrifying recollection of the massacre by Austin. It’s always a risk pairing comedy and violence, but that is the society we inhabit these days and one must always applaud any worthwhile effort to make it work onstage and off.
A veritable All-Star team of Broadway designers support Bobbie’s production – namely multiple Tony Award-winners John Lee Beatty (Scenic Design) and William Ivey Long (Costume Design). Beatty conceived a fabulous, glittery suite set that had me wanting to move in immediately; the colors, the subtle backdrop of the lights of Hollywood, the oversized furniture pieces, all create the feeling of luxury. Ivey’s costumes are spot on, particularly Malick’s slinky sequined number. Legendary Broadway lighting designer Ken Billington creates a glorious glow on the stage, remembering that stars always need that flattering key light.
Perhaps it is too soon after Orlando to begin dramatizing the tragic loss of life in the name of religious beliefs. But anything that makes the audience question what they know and what they feel is 90 minutes well spent.
“Big Night” plays through October 8th at the Kirk Douglas Theatre located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Catch it while you can.