February 26, 2020

Paul Rudnick’s humor lightens an otherwise serious ‘Big Night’

Playwright-author Paul Rudnick chatted breezily on the Culver City set of his new comic drama, “Big Night,” engaging in the kind of banter that led The New York Times to call him “one of our pre-eminent humorists.”

Rudnick said he is now engaged to his longtime boyfriend, a physician, but they will opt for modest nuptials “because neither of us are groomzillas.” His diet, which consists exclusively of junk food, led one friend to wonder, “Why aren’t you dead?” he said. And he recalled the time his Jewish mother first visited his Gothic-style Greenwich Village apartment years ago and remarked: “Why do you have the Pope’s furniture?”

Rudnick then turned serious as he discussed the impetus for “Big Night,” now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Oct. 8. The inspiration, he said, came on June 12, 2016, when he learned about the mass shooting that claimed the lives of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. It was the deadliest incident against LGBTQ people in the United States and the worst U.S. terrorist incident since the 9/11 attacks.

“Something that affected me deeply was that, of course, it was an attack on gay people and especially on gay kids,” Rudnick said. “But it also, like so many terror attacks, was aimed at places where people were going to have a good time. Going after people at moments of peak happiness seems particularly obscene and vile on levels that none of us can comprehend.”

The shootings occurred just hours before the annual Tony Awards ceremony, prompting Rudnick to phone a good friend, an organizer of the event, to find out “Whether the awards would be canceled because of this ongoing horror,” he said. The awards show went on, with a number of heartfelt speeches about the tragedy and participants decked out in silver ribbons to show solidarity with the victims.

“I remember thinking that that particular combination of showbiz celebration and human tragedy was very interesting to me as a writer and seemed like a high-stakes and also comic situation,” Rudnick said.

“That’s something I’ve tried to do in a number of my plays,” he added. “I don’t think comedy and tragedy are ever kept separate in life. Jews certainly have a tradition of both, which is something that makes me very grateful for having grown up Jewish. It’s that tradition of using humor as a way to sustain yourself through great suffering.”

In “Big Night,” Michael, a gay actor who has paid more than his share of dues, is up for an Academy Award that could place him on the Hollywood A-list. But as he nervously awaits the ceremony with his agent, his Jewish mother and her lesbian lover, tragedy strikes the LGBTQ community. The question becomes: Should Michael risk his livelihood by publicly speaking out about the disaster, or should he keep mum to protect his burgeoning celebrity?

Along the way, there are plenty of Rudnickesque one-liners, some of them poking fun at the political correctness of the term LGBTQ, which has become like the alphabet, as one character notes. Michael’s agent in the play, Cary Blumenthal, recalls his bar mitzvah at an ostentatious hotel “with calla lilies, a vegan buffet and twin Soviet gymnasts from Cirque du Soleil.”

He chose to set the play on Oscar night because “everybody’s wearing their tuxes and their gowns and they look so great. But how do you balance that with someone who’s just a few miles away, who’s dead or injured or in the hospital?”

The author sees similarities between “Big Night” and his most famous play, “Jeffrey,” about love and sex during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the early 1990s.

“[‘Jeffrey’] is a comedy set in the age of AIDS, which most people thought was impossible,” Rudnick said. “It was turned down by every theater in New York until it was done in a very tiny playhouse. I wasn’t sure whether people would laugh or whether they would want to kill me.”

Not only did audiences laugh, the play went on to have a successful one-year run off-Broadway and to be performed around the world.

Rudnick’s 1997 film, “In & Out,” another gay romantic comedy, was inspired by Tom Hanks’ Oscar acceptance speech for his performance in the AIDS drama “Philadelphia.”

“He thanked his high school drama teacher and honored him as a great gay American,” Rudnick said. “So then I thought, what if an Oscar winner thanked his gay high school drama teacher, who was not yet out, and even more, what if he thanked him on the week he was about to be married to a woman?”

As for “Big Night,” it’s also a tribute to Rudnick’s mother, Selma, a publicist, who died of cervical cancer six years ago at 86.

“This play is one of the first times I’m sort of dealing with my mom’s death,” he said. “She was charming and funny and smart and she could also drive you crazy.”

Michael’s mom in the play, Esther, played by Wendie Malick, draws on Rudnick’s own mother. “You don’t want to stereotype, but in ways she could be traditionally ‘Jewish,’ ” he said.

Upon meeting Michael’s boyfriend in the play, Esther asks, “Is he Jewish?”

“I wrote a novel years ago called, ‘I’ll Take It,’ which was a tribute to my mom and her sisters and their great shopping tradition,” Rudnick said. “These were strong, political, liberal, hard-working women. But also each year in the fall, we would all pile into the car and I’d go with them on a road trip through New England, where they would all claim that we were visiting cultural sites and whaling museums and restored homes. But we were actually going and hitting every outlet between New Jersey and Freeport, Maine.”

For tickets and information about “Big Night,” visit centertheatregroup.org.