During the awards season, Hollywood occasionally likes to pretend that it’s a meritocracy of quality and craft, and not a desperate scrum devoted to the acquisition of shiny statuettes—and the explosive yet temporary prestige and box-office bonanza that follows.
The billboards and trade-paper ads, the stress, the diets, the false humility, the cracked voices and tears at the podium, the world-class ridiculousness that obtains until the last Academy Award is handed out are all grist for satire, and if Paul Rudnick—in spirit and in contract—is too far inside to truly bite the hand that feeds him, the first half of his new play BIG NIGHT (a world premiere at the Kirk Douglas, directed by Walter Bobbie) is a an often-hilarious jab at Oscar-night hijinks in the manner of Noël Coward: slaps, not punches.
A nominated actor, his boyfriend, his agent, his transgender nephew, his mother Esther, and his mother’s lover—all lovable monsters of need, greed, and ego—are thrown together in a Beverly Hills hotel suite before the awards ceremony. Esther (a chic social x-ray smoothly played by Wendie Malick) picks the biggest night of her son’s life to come out of the closet and introduce the assembly to her new partner, the African-American writer, professor, and multiple-Pulitzer Prize winner Eleanor (Kecia Lewis, a exuberant foil).
(In one of the evening’s funniest lines, Eleanor confides that she knew Esther was for her when she came to realize, “There’s a woman who believes cosmetics should be tested on Republicans.”)
Halfway through the play, tragedy strikes. Using a ripped-from-the-headlines catastrophe as a prop to reveal the serious side of a bunch of jokers is a dangerous game—writing to type works better with comedy than tragedy—and if the play doesn’t quite recover from its drastic U-turn, at least Rudnick took a chance. What resonates in BIG NIGHT, what has always been Rudnick’s forte, is his portrayal of the multivalent overlap of bourgeois queer experience—our insights and our blindness, our great ongoing experiment.
BIG NIGHT, through October 8.
KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE, 9820 Washington Boulevard, Culver City.
From top: Kecia Lewis and Wendie Malick; Brian Hutchison (nominated star) and Max Jenkins (his agent); Luke Macfarlane (star’s boyfriend) and Hutchison; Lewis, Malick, and Tom Phelan (nephew) in Big Night. Photographs by Craig Schwartz.