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Regrets Only, at MTC Stage I

Last week was a busy one, with two concerts and a play. The concerts were both very satisfying, but the play was such an outstanding delight that I shall try to tell you something about it now. I don't want to give away the plot, because a great part of the fun is anticipating, if only by minutes, the direction in which it goes. And I shall try not to re-tell any of the fifteen or so drop-dead jokes.

If I did tell one of the drop-dead jokes, you might not find it all that terribly funny - or, in the case of the Donna Karan joke, you might not get it all. But the New York audience at MTC's Stage I the other night didn't miss a thing. Expectations were high - Christine Baranski and George Grizzard in a Paul Rudnick play!!!! - but they were met and then surpassed. It was obvious from the start that the show was going to be funny, possibly very funny. What was not so obvious was the show's very satisfying ending. So often, comedies turn into overtired three year-olds as the finish approaches: they don't want to end, but they can't quite keep going, either. So they fuss, and when the curtain comes down the audience is simply grateful. Not so at the end of Regrets Only. The play's final moments are just poignant and sweet enough to give a dash of Der Rosenkavalier. Just a dash.

For years if not forever, Paul Rudnick's humor has operated on the assumption that gay men and women - but mostly gay men - already control the world. It is a brave, whistling-in-the-dark way of dealing with a society afflicted by patches of stolid homophobia in which gay men are occasionally beaten to death. In Regrets Only, the playwright lets his postulate off the leash and permits it to rule, if not the world, then the second act of his play. This duplex fantasy, playing on the surface but also shoring up the foundations, is the perfect catalyst for transforming pointless, empty lives into magical ones. 

I shall lay out the set-up. Tibby McCullough (Ms Baranski) is a willowy socialite who is committed to her world of charity benefits: somebody's got to do it, and she might as well look great. Helping her to look great is her favorite dress designer and customary escort, spunky Hank Hadley (Mr Grizzard). Hank has just emerged from months of bereaving his long-standing lover, Mike, felled by cancer. Offhandedly snazzy in his tux, Hank isn't sure that he's quite ready for the din of high society. While Tibby is trying to stoke his enthusiasm, her daughter, Spencer (Diana Davis), storms in, wearing a new rock on her fourth finger: her beau has proposed! Hardly has this news been digested (with the help of a great many jokes at the expense of various real-life fashion designers) than attorney Jack McCullough (David Rasche), Tibby's husband, whirls in with  big news of his own: he has been summoned to the White House to assist in the drafting of a constitutional amendment, and he wants Spencer, who is a hot attorney in her own right, to serve as his clerk. Hank is surprised by the vehemence of his hostility to the proposed amendment, the nature of which I leave it to you to infer, and we suspect that, somewhere before the end of the play, Tibby is going to have to choose between her blockheaded husband and her mercurial best friend.

The second act revolves around a what-if scenario that has obliged me to duct-tape my fingers, in order to prevent them from typing it, and culminate in the magnificent explosion of Tibby in a fright wig. Along the way, Mr Rudnick introduces the character of Marietta Claypoole, Tibby's mother, played by Siān Phillips in a manner that increasingly recalls Alice Brady at her daffiest. Marietta has two outfits, one of which consists of Hefty bags and Hank Hadley shoe boxes, and she bears her screwball wisdom with the greatest equanimity. (She is quite funny in the process.) But the real laff-erator is Myra Kesselman (Mary Testa), "the only Jewish housemaid on Fifth Avenue." Endowed with Kalashnikov wit but unburdened by excess servility, Myra manages to stay busy without doing her job. She is in fact a shameless but completely successful theatrical device, trotted on to make outlandish commentary on the action - usually in dialect - whenever the action threatens to become too "serious." Ms Testa is perhaps only two-ninths of a hair less funny than Bette Midler would have been in the part - if Ms Midler still did dialect. The sangfroid with which the McCullough's overlook Myra's antics is funny in itself.

Ms Baranski was so obviously born to play the part of Tibby - which is probably why Mr Rudnick wrote it for her (as I assume that he did) - that she can't have needed much direction, but Christopher Ashley marshals the rest of his excellent cast with aplomb, as befits a show that is marked more by sparkling repartee than by hilarious pratfalls. Michael Yeargan, William Ivey Long, and Natasha Katz give the production the high sheen that it deserves with glorious sets, beautiful costumes, and magical lighting.

Tibby's great lines won't make sense out of context, so I won't be giving anything away when I cite my favorites: "And they still look that way"; "I know, it's so gay!"; and the one that has already entered our connubial lingua franca: "I know just what you're thinking - Nantucket." (December 2006)

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