I have always been a fan of Paul Rudnick, as a playwright and as a more journalistic writer; I've especially enjoyed some of his pieces in The New Yorker over the years. Theatre Nerd throwback: I have him to thank for my acceptance to NYU, as I used a monologue from his political comedy, Regrets Only in the audition portion of my application, and it delivered! He's an especially strong comedic writer that I've had the honor of growing up with in my theatre education. So when I found out the Kirk Douglas Theatre would be premiering his freshest creation, not only was I excited, but I felt a level of comfort and trust that you might with family. I trusted he would write something new, funny, heartfelt and politically charged that I could laugh along with like an old friend.
So when I read the synopsis for Big Night I was surprised by the instant similarity to Regrets Only. An elite man is faced with the decision to either publicly defend LGBTQ rights, or remain neutral. When I read the full script, the suspected similarities came true and for other reasons, I also found myself just a little nervous for the story's transition to the stage, although mildly hopefully with re-writes leading up to opening night. Maybe it would turn around, and find itself.
Despite my wishful thinking, I was sorely disappointed by the production on a number of levels. But I think the base of its weakness is that the play attempts to discuss too many topics and issues in one 90 minute show. We’ve got LGBTQ rights, hate crimes, female empowerment, gun control, star power, Black Lives Matter, marriage equality...honestly the list goes on and on and on. These are all topics crucial to discussion in our society, however in the scope of the play some are grazed over or forgotten far too quickly just because there’s so much happening. That was the number one issue I heard from audiences at multiple post show conversations I attended and participated in. I was craving a bit more development from certain characters, although I honor that this is a “new play” that’s probably somewhat still in development. Somewhat. On the other hand, this is a huge organization working with a comfortable budget on a show that was announced as a part of the season many months ago. And this ain't Paul Rudnick’s first rodeo.
The production does have some redeeming qualities that did allow for numerous gratifying moments. The set by John Lee Beatty is absolutely stunning. I want to live in this hotel and he really painted a gorgeous picture of luxury and glamour in LA. Aside from that, the show's greatest strength is its humor. Paul Rudnick has a talent for developing humor that speaks to both the younger crowd and the more seasoned subscribers and donors. I enjoyed that and I was definitely laughing a lot. The audience responded through laughter quite generously. The main character's young, ambitious and fabulous agent Cary (played by Max Jenkins) was particularly on point in his comedic timing. His performance as a whole was both the most convincing and most hilarious; funny how that works out ; ) Wendie Malick as the headliner plays a convincing Upper West Side Jewish mother. Sometimes her role steals the spotlight, in true commitment to the character, while other moments tend to be more passive. And despite the abundance of topical content, I am left wanting just a little bit more from her as a dynamic character.
Big Night runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through October 8th. If you're already a season ticket holder, show up for some well executed comedic moments, but if not I'd give this show a pass with more intriguing productions coming up later this season.