Paul Rudnick's plays have been produced both on and off Broadway and around the world. His most recent work was Regrets Only at Manhattan Theatre Club. His novels are Social Disease and I'll Take It. His screenplays include Addams Family Values, the screen adaptation of his award-winning play Jeffrey, and In & Out. Here he discusses his current Lincoln Center Theater hit, A New Century.
Brendan Lemon: Have you been surprised by which lines in A New Centurydetonate the biggest laughs?
PR: Some of the largest laughs in my plays are in moments where I wasn't expecting them. Those are bonus laughs, which of course are often the product of having highly skilled actors. It's the oldest law in comedy: you can't play for the laughs; you have to play for the truth of the moment.
BL: Do you know the story of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn? (I hope I have this correct.) They were doing a play in which Cronyn's line in a meal scene was something like "Pass me the butter." At the first preview it got big laughs, but subsequently the laughs went away. After a week or so, when he still wasn't getting the yuks, he asked Tandy about this. She replied, "The first time you asked for the butter. The other times you asked for the laugh."
PR: That is so dead-on. There is one thing slightly related that's happened with A New Century, in the craftswoman section. We've found that some nights in her first few moments the audience, composed mainly of New Yorkers, is wary. It's as if they're thinking: Wait, this character is not one of us -- we don't trust the characters we normally fly over. It's real Manhattan snobbery. But she wins them over quickly.
BL: You must be aware of how in this play you get away with sometimes sexy subject matter because it's related by middle-aged women with whom the audience can identify.
PR: True. There's a certain kind of shock-related laughter that I enjoy. It usually involves sexual and religious matters. But certainly when you've got a hostess like Linda Lavin, as we do, you have the best possible guide to lead you through the inferno. And Lincoln Center Theater audiences have been responding beautifully. By contrast, downtown audiences can think that they're unshockable, but they can be so politically correct that they're less open to some subject matter.
For example, with my play Jeffrey, set during the early days of the AIDS crisis, an older audience could sometimes better understand the story, because they were more accustomed to dealing with illness and with the end of life.
BL: In 2008, what would be a topic that hasn't yet lost its power to shock?
PR: Often it's not the topic itself that's shocking but some people's difficulty in dealing with a subject. Anytime you think certain subjects are off-limits to comedy, though, you come smack up against something like "Springtime for Hitler."
Even in supposedly now-mainstream Noel Coward plays like Design for Living, about a ménage a trois, or Private Lives, about divorce, the subject matter was considered far more shocking or racy at the time of their premieres than it is now. It's always interesting to see what plays hold their power.
BL: You have written comedy both for film and theater. What are the differences?
PR: There are enormous differences. In the theater -- and this is a generalization -- the comedy tends to be verbal. In film, you can often create comedy through editing. Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the Addams Family Values movie that I worked on, recut things after the early screenings to add more laughs. I learned a lot from that process.
BL: In and Out, a movie you wrote, has Midwesterner characters. A New Century also has a Midwestern character, played by Jayne Houdyshell. Why do these people appeal to you?
PR: I guess it's because I'm so aware of my own Manhattan snobbery. We tend to have this hideously misguided response about the sophistication levels about people from other parts of the country. Writing these characters perhaps allows me to surprise New York audiences a little more, to open their eyes a little bit.
BL: New Yorkers are often concerned too much with adopting the fashionable response to things.
PR: Absolutely. There's too much "taste shame" - being afraid to like something that may be passé -- in a place like New York. But being governed by the trends of a big city can be every bit as oppressive as being governed by the whims of a small town.
BL: A 14-year-old girl sitting next to me at A New Century said something astute. In the first section of the play, there's a leather-man character. In the third section, the craftswoman starts picking up and showing us her wild and wacky creations. At that point, that girl said, "Oh my God: another fetishist."
PR: She's absolutely right. And the craftswoman fetishist is as passionate as the leather-man. People in Manhattan can forget that the crafts movement in America right now is overwhelming. It's a multimillion-dollar industry. You can go on international cruises where everyone spends all their time in the ballroom engaged in scrapbooking!
BL: One man's fetish is another man's hobby, I guess. But scrapbooking, for me at least, can seem a little scary.
PR: There comes a point when people can spend more of their time recording their lives than living them. This also applies to the relentless need most people have to take cell-phone photos of every thing in their lives. Everything today is a souvenir.
BL: Let's go back for a second to the Houdyshell character. There's something both scary and soothing about her crafts obsession.
PR: People can be very snobby about the creative impulse. It's as if you end up with a Rembrandt you're okay, but if you end up with a tuxedo for your toaster you're just a fetishist. I don't quite buy that. The urge toward self-expression is universal, and I'm not sure that a toilet-paper caddy is all that different from a Dan Flavin neon sculpture. In fact, the caddy probably requires a lot more skill. It's sometimes unfair what the culture defines as art and what it defines as frivolity.
BL: Speaking of frivolity, we've avoided Mr. Charles, the flamboyant gay character in A New Century. The audience seems to respond to him less explosively than to the two women.
PR: Well, that's the piece I wrote first, so there's familiarity there. Yet I love that there are still people who reject him -- who feel that he's not representative of the gay community. For me, Mr. Charles represents a kind of approach to life that should never go out of style, or at least not be condemned. There should never be such a thing as a good type of gay person versus a bad type of gay person. What matters is the freedom to dress yourself up exactly as you'd like.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.