ENTERTAINMENT 2021

Paul Rudnick Reflects on Decades of Making Us Laugh Through the Tears 

“Theater became essential in the AIDS era, as a source of sheer information. It’s been fascinating to watch Dr. Anthony Fauci make his way through both plagues.”

by

Paul Rudnick entered America’s cultural bloodstream in 1982 with his comedy Poor Little Lambs, about a female Yale student’s attempt to join the all-male singing group, The Whiffenpoofs.

We’ve been laughing ever since.

Rudnick’s 1993 play, Jeffrey, was billed as a comedy about AIDS. As funny as it is poignant, the production initially had trouble finding a theatre as the disease was then ravaging New York City, but it garnered numerous awards and was turned into a movie two years later. Rudnick’s revisionist poke at organized religion in The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (1998) circles back as relevant with Evangelical Christians suffering from queer-on-the-brain these days. Most recently his specialty of turning the world upside down is on full display in Playing The Palace, his new rom-com novel about Royal love. The Obie and Outer Critics Circle award winner, novelist, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter, whom the New York Times has called, “one of our pre-eminent humorists” spoke by telephone with the Village Voice.

••

Frank Pizzoli: Americans love British Royals. Your new book Playing The Palace shows queer love blossoming between Carter, a lonely New York City event planner, and Crown Prince Edgar.

Paul Rudnick: The book is an all-out romantic comedy, taking full advantage of America’s obsession with royalty. After the last four years, I wanted to create an escape, into a far more lighthearted world. Everyone’s been dealing with stress and rage, from politics and Covid and simply getting through the day. Big time romance and delirious humor are more essential than ever.

FP: Very different than your comedic satire Coastal Elites, recently on HBO?

PR: I wrote Elites to tell the stories of people breaking down — and breaking through — their understandable struggles as they wrestled with the political climate and the erupting culture wars. And if that wasn’t enough, a pandemic descended. The piece was originally going to be staged at the Public Theater and filmed for HBO by the wonderful director Jay Roach, but with the lockdown, that was no longer possible. So we shot the interlocking monologues remotely, with every protocol in place and an amazing cast.  I was able to rewrite constantly, to include everything that was happening, from the overwhelmed healthcare system to the Black Lives Matter protests. The show was an expression of communal fury. I’d get on the phone with friends and we’d promise not to discuss politics and two seconds later we’d be dissecting every Trump atrocity. I wanted to reflect a very specific moment in American helplessness and commitment, right before the election.

FP: And then it all changed?

PR: Yes. Because so many people worked so hard all across the country. My partner and I were poll watchers in Pennsylvania, and I wondered if voters would be fighting, but everyone was calm and determined, to make a change. And now, with President Biden, there’s an adult in charge. The temperature’s different, and the daily desperation has lessened. Nothing’s been solved, but people have taken a breath. I’ve always felt the highest form of happiness is relief. There’s a path forward.

FP: You’re writing the Broadway musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Does the original story from 2006 hold up in the era of MeToo?

PR: I’m co-writing the book with Kate Wetherhead, who’s terrific, and Elton John is doing the score to Shaina Taub’s lyrics. I think everyone wants to honor a beloved movie but also include cultural shifts in the fashion world and the huge need for diversity. It’s scheduled for an out-of-town try-out in Chicago next summer.

FP: We say the arts require us to suspend reality. And some opine that we live in a post-truth world. If art imitates life and then life imitates art, will art and reality finally collide?

PR: (Laughing) Fiction is invaluable because it allows us to entertain contradictions. We can stroll through a variety of positions, philosophies, and then start all over again.  There could be a strong, renewed interest in fiction, as people try to cope with a cataclysmic world. Fiction permits every dirty secret and nagging question to fully emerge.

FP: I’m thinking of The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer with AIDS data projected on scrims during the action on stage. That’s a real contrast to today’s all-conspiracy-all-the-time posture.

PR: With Covid there have been moments reminiscent of how AIDS was ignored, by the media and the government; Trump’s mocking or nonexistent response mirrored Reagan’s.  Theater became essential in the AIDS era, as a source of sheer information. It’s been fascinating to watch Dr. Anthony Fauci make his way through both plagues. My partner John’s a doctor who studied epidemiology, so he’s helped me make some sense of all this. Reagan specialized in ignoring suffering, while Trump actively lied about it, and spread misinformation. There are differences, of course; the media’s been far more onboard with Covid. Initially, AIDS was sidelined because it was affecting marginalized groups, especially LGBTQ people and communities of color.

FP: Does one staple of life — religion — need another look? The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (1998) introduces us to Adam and Steve and the first lesbians Jane and Mabel. Most Evangelical Christians cannot let queer love happen. Yet so many pastors vehemently shout anti-LGBTQ sermons while they themselves are sexually active in their gay closets. What would a ‘Rudnick’ diagnosis of the situation say?

PD: The Most Fabulous Story was inspired by the evangelical insistence that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” I was talking this over with the director Christopher Ashley, at the Empire Diner in Chelsea, and I thought, that’s my next play. But I wasn’t interested in simply an attack on organized religion, but a genuine exploration of faith. I realized that, at any New York cocktail party, if you asked people about their sex lives, they’d go on for days. But if you asked them about believing in God, the subject felt far more taboo. As I was writing the play it struck me, that when it comes to religion, everyone’s opinion is equally valid; it’s the most personal topic imaginable. There are historical facts, in terms of how various religions come into being and flourish, but as for faith itself, that’s up to each of us. 

And of course, when people pursue their personal idea of God and belief, they get passionate, which means they also usually get funny. The best comedy results from the highest possible stakes. The play doesn’t deride anything except bigotry, which tends to confuse audience members expecting a diatribe. Religion is also inherently theatrical, and dependant on costumes, pageantry, and ritual. But we were off-Broadway, which meant miracles on a budget.

FP: Broadway is expected back full throttle by Fall. Will digital presentations continue anyway?

PR: During the pandemic, artists found imaginative ways of keeping their work alive, through Zoom readings and every other form of tech theater. But everyone’s yearning to be back in a theater, with an audience and the alchemy of a live performance. People have been predicting the death of theater for centuries, but it’s irreplaceable. Digital innovations can be extremely useful, especially in bringing all sorts of work to people without access to theaters. Zoom can also be used for meetings, casting, and rehearsals although again, there’s nothing like being in a room with other people. That’s the essence of theater.  

Highlights