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Paul Rudnick's 'The New Century' to open at American Stage

Paul Rudnick is a witty guy: playwright, screenwriter, essayist and alter ego of Libby Gelman-Waxner, the chatty movie reviewer of Premiere magazine.

It was Libby/Rudnick who argued that critics should divide Tom Cruise's films into two categories — with sunglasses and without. She characterized William Hurt in The Accidental Tourist as speaking "very slowly, like a Mormon on Quaaludes." Her review of The Fabulous Baker Boys lauded Michelle Pfeiffer, whose "cheekbones and thighs could be grounds for a class action suit by women everywhere."

Premiere, alas, is gone, having folded a few years ago, but Rudnick is still very much around. He has a new book of essays out, I Shudder: And Other Reactions to Life, Death and New Jersey (Harper), and a production of his latest play, The New Century, opens at American Stage this week.

Along with his comic writing, Rudnick is famous for his Gothic apartments in New York. He once lived in the former apartment of John Barrymore, an ornate pad off Washington Square that inspired him to write his most popular play, I Hate Hamlet.

"My style can basically be summed up by the fact that my mom once walked into my apartment, looked around and said, 'Paul, why do you have the Pope's furniture?' '' he said recently. "I tend to collect carved armchairs and all sorts of deeply uncomfortable pieces that I enjoy staring at while I'm trying to come up with an idea.''

Rudnick is a throwback in other ways, too. He still uses an IBM Selectric typewriter, which he adores. "There's a scene in Mad Men where the camera pans across the secretarial pool, and every desk has one of these mammoth IBM Selectrics,'' he said. "For me, that was like pornography.''

Rudnick does own a computer and thinks it's swell for surfing the Web, but he works on the typewriter. "Mostly because it's indestructible. I tend to get mad at my typewriter when I feel it's doing poor work, and sometimes I smack it. If you smack an IBM Selectric, it will laugh at you. If you smack your computer, you're out several thousand dollars.''

I Shudder has some terrific show business stories, such as Rudnick's droll account of doing research at a convent for the screenplay of Sister Act and profiles of outsized personalities like producer Allan Carr and costume designer William Ivey Long. I Hit Hamlet, Rudnick's remembrance of the disastrous 1991 Broadway run of I Hate Hamlet, starring Nicol Williamson as Barrymore, is a classic.

Williamson, a brooding Scotsman, was brilliant but notoriously difficult, a world-class boozer in the tradition of his mates Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. He undermined I Hate Hamlet with his erratic behavior, finally causing a sensation when he whacked his co-star, Evan Handler, on the butt during a sword fight and stopped the show.

"At the time when all the I Hate Hamlet events were erupting, people would tell me, 'Paul, this will make such great material for your memoirs,' '' Rudnick said. "I remember thinking that was a strange sort of comfort and I wondered if that's what they told people getting out the lifeboats of the Titanic. But they turned out to be somewhat accurate. It was good material.''

Rudnick's comedy Jeffrey was one of the early AIDS plays, and it still gets staged, even as medical advances have stemmed the impact of the disease.

"Sometimes people wonder if it's dated,'' said Rudnick, 51, who is gay. "I only wish it could be more dated. People somehow imagine that AIDS is no longer with us, which of course isn't true, particularly outside the United States. Even beyond that, you never want to erase that era. So many lives were lost, and there is a generation of gay men who are gone. To forget them would be shameful. We have to pay tribute to those lives.''

A trademark of Rudnick's writing is his fearless portrayal of stereotypically flamboyant gay characters. His sendup of religion, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, features the "true'' Old Testament characters, Adam and Steve. Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, which is included in The New Century, is about "the gayest man in the universe.''

"The thing I despise the most is political correctness,'' Rudnick said. "I refuse to force my characters to behave themselves or obey laws of political correctness, because that's pretty much the death of comedy. I find flamboyance and a certain gay wit are wonderful assets and even weapons. That was certainly true in the AIDS crisis when at times a gay man's sense of humor was all he had in the face of such horror. There are a lot of gay guys who are very funny, and that's to be celebrated.''

There are few gay and lesbian taboos yet to be broken in pop culture, with TV shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word attracting enormous straight followings. But Rudnick writes about one that lingers on in his account of the making of In & Out, for which he wrote the screenplay. The 1997 movie features a big, steamy kiss between Tom Selleck and Kevin Kline.

"It's still always an interesting moment when you ask the audience to accept a real Hollywood smooch, when you ask them to imagine: What if Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler were two guys or two women? Would that be as equally romantic?''

In 2005, Brokeback Mountain probably broke the taboo for good, but Rudnick thinks the depiction of gay relationships in movies and TV still has a way to go.

"In a certain sense, the audience will accept gay sexuality, but gay romance can sometimes be a line in the sand. I think Brokeback Mountain is a genuine romance, although it is also a tragic one. I do think there is a certain trepidation about presenting gay lives in real fullness.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

. If you go

The New Century

Paul Rudnick's play opens Tuesday and runs through Nov. 1 at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. $20, with student rush tickets $10 a half-hour before curtain. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.

Paul Rudnick's 'The New Century' to open at American Stage 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 5:30am]

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