Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Through October 8
Big Night is a play with aspirations bigger than it can deliver on. The new work by playwright Paul Rudnick wants to make grand statements and provoke gnarly debates about important social issues, but complex issues need to be explored carefully — they’re not best served by being glossed over to get to the next Big Idea, a trap Big Night falls into all too often.
The show follows Michael (Brian Hutchison), an actor who’s been struggling and playing bit parts for years. He’s finally been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, much to the delight of his agent, Cary (Max Jenkins). It’s the night of the show, and Michael is freaking out. His nephew, Eddie (Tom Phelan), who is trans, wants Michael to use his speech — when and if he wins — to make a statement to the LGBT community. Michael, who is gay and in a long-term relationship with boyfriend Austin (Luke Macfarlane) isn’t sure if tonight is the right night to do that. Meanwhile, Michael’s mom, Esther (Wendie Malick), who willingly shoehorns herself into the role of a stereotypical Jewish mother, mostly wants to make the night all about her.
The first half of the play moves along well, with an almost sitcom-like pacing of quips and zippy punchlines. The writing feels a bit too expository — the characters spend a lot of time saying what they’re thinking and delivering monologues about backstory. Still. Cary, Michael’s agent, has so many great one-liners that it’s easy to forgive those faults.
But then the play takes a turn. Michael learns that there’s been a shooting at the Los Angeles LGBT center, where Austin is. Michael wins the Oscar, but it’s bittersweet, and the rest of the evening is somber. It’s a moment that feels directly inspired by last summer’s shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, which occurred the same day as the Tony Awards, and similarly cast a long shadow over that awards show.
Unfortunately, this is when the play loses its footing. The characters, who didn’t feel very three-dimensional to start with, retreat further into tropes. Eddie becomes the angry young radical who is barely won over by common sense. Eleanor (Kecia Lewis), who’s there with Michael’s mother, is solely defined by her past trauma and her Pulitzer Prize. Esther — well, she still wants to make it all about her, and she has some truly cringe-worthy moments of white feminism (really, it’s not always about you) and, even worse, outright racism and transphobia. Perhaps Rudnick thinks it’s alright to make racist and transphobic jokes, as long as they’re coming from a character the audience isn’t supposed to like, but there’s something about the context of the “jokes” that doesn’t make them feel very much like joke. It seems like the audience is expected to laugh along, and secretly agree that, yes, Muslims are the problem!
Perhaps it’s telling that the three most important figures in the second half are the play’s least compelling. Michael, as a character, is a bland everyman, while neither Macfarlane nor Malick seems comfortable in their roles. Macfarlane reads as stilted, as if he’s delivering his lines and hitting his marks (which are pretty obvious under Walter Bobbie’s direction — he literally turns his back on the others so he can look out to the audience and deliver the most emotional moment in one of his monologues).
Malick, meanwhile, trips over her lines, and comes across nervous as an actor, yet not neurotic enough in her character. Given the chance, Eddie and Eleanor could be interesting, but neither Phelan nor Lewis is given much to work with from the script. Indeed, it’s Jenkins’ Cary, who doesn’t talk much throughout the second half, who makes the biggest overall impression, likely due to his great comedic timing.
There are some truly funny moments in Big Night, and it’s commendable that the playwright is trying to tackle big issues — he just doesn’t tackle any of those issues particularly well. The play makes half-baked statements about gun control, base desires for revenge, and what it means to have a platform to speak out about important social issues. Ultimately, however, Rudnick does not use his own platform to say anything meaningful about anything.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through Oct. 8. Centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.