The 21st century started with such hope, such promise. We stood together and bravely strode forward into a new millennium … and promptly stepped into deep shit. As we struggle to scrape this decade's droppings from our shoes, we wrestle with weighty questions. Where does hatred come from? What is the meaning of tolerance? Who do we want our children to be? How can we turn this into camp comedy?

At least that's what I think Paul Rudnick is thinking. The author of Jeffrey and In & Out debuted his latest play, The New Century, off-Broadway this past April, so the ink must have been barely dry on the rights before Margaret Nolan of Kangagirl Productions snapped it up for a run in the Parliament House's Footlight Theater.

New Century is built from three short plays: a pair of monologues bracketing a two-hander. In "Pride and Joy," Helene Nadler (Elizabeth T. Murff) stakes her claim to the title "Most Long-Suffering Jewish Mother" by parading the tale of her homosexual, transsexual, coprophilic children with the Massapequa chapter of "Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others." Nadler has turned aggressive empathy into an art form, and Murff nails every nasal nag as she both embraces and dismisses her brood's increasingly alternative lifestyles.

"Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach," a 1998 script that Rudnick re-purposed as New Century's second act, stars Frank McClain reprising the role he winningly performed at the 2006 Orlando Fringe. Mr. Charles, the self-proclaimed last truly gay man (until "Spielberg uncovers ancient DNA from Paul Lynde"), is in exile from Manhattan for flaming too brightly. ("I was asked to leave. There was a vote.") He takes revenge by embodying every over-the-top homosexual stereotype on a late-night public-access TV show, alongside his iron-ab'ed but empty-headed sidekick, Shane (Brock Yurich). McClain is again hysterical in his hysteria, especially as he delivers the history of American queer theater in 60 seconds.

"Crafty" introduces Illinois homemaker Barbara Ellen Diggs (Anitra Pritchard), a motherly manic-depressive who is too involved with her crocheted toilet-paper cozies. Her felt and fabric fixation is a desperate form of "craft therapy" (her major expenses are "labor, Zoloft and glue"), a defense against the pain of losing her son to AIDS before she had fully accepted his orientation. Pritchard's funny Fargo-ian vowels are pitch-perfect, as are her perky props, but it was the laugh-free moments of honest emotion that made this the most affecting segment.

Finally, in the titular episode all the characters are brought together in a New York maternity ward on the flimsiest of pretenses; the parting message seems to be "Find solace in discount shopping." Despite the efforts of director David Lee (an expert hand with this style of comedy) and his first-rate cast, Rudnick's script feels fractured; the weak finale fails to make the sum greater than its often-entertaining parts. There are subtle flashes of depth beneath the acidic surface, but they were largely lost in the opening-night audience's rapturous response to every arch one-liner. If you're in New Century's target demo, it'll probably score a bull's-eye; for me, it's a solid shot that goes a little wide of the mark.


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