Big Night is one of those stage comedies that tries to tackle big themes but trips on the very glibness it purports to satirize.
Written by Paul Rudnick and unimaginatively directed by Walter Bobbie, it's set in a glitzy hotel suite before and after an Oscars ceremony. Mike (Brian Hutchison), a gay Jewish actor, is an unassuming guy who still can't believe he's been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category (and on the same ballot as Matt Damon, no less). Mike's hanging out with his agent, Cary (Max Jenkins), discussing his past career and future plans, when in walks his nephew Eddie (Tom Phelan), a transgender person and a college student in gender studies. Eddie wants Mike to use the podium to take a stand on the casting of a cisgender performer (also up for an award) in a transgender role. Cary strenuously objects, concerned that such overt political statements at a good-time event such as the Oscars will undercut Mike's career.
Before this conflict can play out, however, Mike's glamorous and controlling mom, Esther (Wendie Malick), appears and immediately secures center stage with her own announcement (following a lengthy exposition) that she's fallen in love with Eleanor (Kecia Lewis), a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American novelist. Hardly have greetings and congratulations been bandied about when news comes of a mass shooting at an LGBT center hosting homeless children. Thirty people, among them youngsters, die; one of those to survive is Mike's buff boyfriend, Austin (Luke Macfarlane), who, traumatized, soon shows up at the suite to reveal all the terrible details.
An ambitious Rudnick takes as many stands on as many issues as possible, depicting his characters engaging in discussions about homophobia (both within and outside the entertainment industry), the universal subjugation of women, the right — or not — to bear arms, religion and faith, how to deal with hate, and grief over the loss of a child. At one uncomfortable juncture, Esther reacts to the news that the shooter is a Muslim by vowing to unite with other older women to march into hate-filled communities and protest — although the only act of hate on the table is by a lone Muslim shooter, making you wonder if it’s into Muslim communities that she, a privileged Beverly Hills matron, is planning to march.
All of this is jam-packed into 90 minutes of a facile script studded with one-liners, some more on target than others.
Discounting the ripped-from-the-headlines contrivance of a mass murder involving kids, Big Night might have scored validity in its effort to point up the responsibilities of the privileged among us — essentially, I think, the play's main idea. But so swiftly do the characters return to their narcissistic concerns and their repartee, and so unconvincing are the actors in their brow-wrinkling sorrow, that this main thrust of the drama swiftly becomes moot.
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From the beginning the kindest thing that can be said about the ensemble is that it is under-rehearsed (maybe) and under-directed (for sure). Bobbie positions the actors onstage and they mostly stand there, looking awkward and shooting exposition back and forth. It's as if they're being directed for a sitcom, with expectations that strategic cameras will pick up some close shots to be edited in later.
The charismatic Malick comes off best in the first half, but her performance falls apart once the role calls for her to approximate a real human being. The bland Hutchinson is miscast, and it's impossible to believe that he and Malick share DNA.
John Lee Beatty's set is the most accomplished thing about the production, and its faux indigo twilight has you wishing you were elsewhere, reflecting on the stars.
BIG NIGHT | Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Through Oct. 8 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org