Standing on Ceremony,
the latest evening of collected plays to hit the boards this season, is head
and shoulders above previous major entrant Relatively
Speaking—which is to damn with faint praise, of course. But the difference
in quality between the two shows is so marked as to seem intentional, starting
with the very concepts.
Standing on Ceremony
is comprised of a handful of brief plays regarding gay marriage. From couples
actually saying I do to a recreation of a Facebook debate about it (courtesy of
playwright Doug Wright), the material and performances transcend the rough
concert staging from director Stuart Ross, who mostly stays out of the
material’s way by letting his cast—which includes Harriet Harris, Richard
Thomas and Beth Leavel—do what prompted their hiring.
The very topicality of the evening is a slap in the face to Relatively Speaking, which practically chokes
its audiences with the mustiness of the jokes contributed by trio of authors
Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen. Are there any people left with an
interest in the comic stylings of Elaine May? One expects moths to flutter out
of the costumes in both her “George Is Dead” and Allen’s “Honeymoon Hotel,” an
excruciatingly broad play about a runaway bride that involves a tippling rabbi
and a philosophical pizza delivery boy. Oh yeah, and a May-late-December
romance that Allen goes out of his way to defend, conjuring up unwelcome
memories of his own affair with adopted daughter Soon-Yi.
In Standing on
Ceremony, the jokes are up to date and the performers are on top of their
game. Perhaps the most compelling reason for theatergoers to buy their tickets
now is the presence of Harris in two Paul Rudnick shorts: First, Harris plays a
politely bigoted Midwestern woman who is tormented by a little gay voice in her
head (she knows it’s gay because the voice is “bitchy, unrelenting and right”),
and then as Mark Consuelos’ pushy Jewish mother, determined to one-up her
friends and their fabulous son’s fabulous gay weddings.
In addition to the Rudnicks, there is Wright’s doodle of a
play, which relies on nothing but verbatim transcripts to make its point (Polly
Draper is a scream as the husky-voiced, no-nonsense lesbian Sheila), and plays from
Wendy MacLeod and Mo Gaffney, both starring Leavel and Draper as the world’s
most wonderful, funny, touching lesbians. Talking over one another, fondly
brushing the other’s shoulder and generally seeming like a functional, happy
twosome, Leavel and Draper turn in the evening’s most moving performances.
Less persuasive is Neil LaBute’s “Strange Fruit,”
stylistically and tonally out of place among the other offerings. This being a
LaBute—plus that title—ensure that the ending is seen from a mile away, which
somewhat lessens its impact. Moisés Kaufman’s “London Mosquitoes,” a eulogy
delivered by Richard Thomas as a heartbroken gay man who just lost his lover of
46 years, is a much better reminder of the seriousness of gay marriage.
One could argue that it’s odd for a play dedicated to the
importance of gay rights to not include a single homosexual actor in its cast,
but the talent on display is enough to quiet those quibbles. (But really?
There’s not a single unemployed gay actor in New York City?) More importantly,
the plays are subject to change, so be prepared to see a different evening than
the one you may be expecting. Just cross your fingers you’ll get to hear
Rudnick’s joke about The Help,
peerlessly delivered by Harris, who’s been away from the New York stage for far
Standing on Ceremony:
The Gay Marriage Plays
Through Dec. 18, Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane (at 6th
Ave.), www.standingonceremony.net; $59–$79.