A Gay Old Time

A pair of productions with one thing in common


Paul Rudnick is another breed of cat altogether. Tennessee Williams was gay, but his plays speak to everyone. Rudnick has turned his gayness into a cash-cow franchise. He is a funny guy, but his message gets a little repetitious: Gay is good. No, it's better than good; it's fabulous!

Valhallais more than fabulous; it's manic. It's two plays for the price of one. The conceit here is to show parallels between Ludwig of Bavaria, whose apparently foolish nineteenth-century life was devoted to building extravagant castles and going to the opera, and a fictional character, the voraciously bisexual James Avery. James, who is the scourge of Dainsville, Texas, back in the 1930s and '40s, doesn't seem to be devoted to much of anything beyond self-gratification.

Pillow talk: Molly Schaffer and Jason Kuykendall are the Cat's meow.
J. Bruce Summers
Pillow talk: Molly Schaffer and Jason Kuykendall are the Cat's meow.

Details

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Marshall W. Mason. Performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through October 7 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $13 to $61 (rush seats available for students and seniors, $8 and $10 respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925.

Valhalla - By Paul Rudnick. Directed by Deanna Jent. Performed by HotCity Theatre through October 1 at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $18 to $23. Call 314-482-9125.

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How to approach such eclectic material that is as much an extended vaudeville revue as it is a play? For this HotCity Theatre production, director (and Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent began by assembling a cast of extremely accomplished actors. Terry Meddows is the endearingly pathetic Ludwig. To watch Meddows create an empathetic character even as he is navigating a minefield of one-line jokes is to be reminded of what a deft performer he is. Why Meddows isn't working regularly at the Rep, or on Broadway, is a mystery worthy of Elmore Leonard. When Meddows is cavorting onstage with the gifted Gary Wayne Barker, viewers are seeing the best that St. Louis has to offer.

Another of the evening's memorable scenes occurs when Ludwig encounters a wisecracking humpback princess who has more curves than Maggie the Cat; she just has them in the wrong places. Rory Lipede is a delight as Princess Sophie. Over the past two years Lipede has developed palpable assurance as an actress. Sophie is but one of five roles she plays in Valhalla, and she enacts them with range and individuality.

Andy Neiman is persuasive as hell-raising James, and Blaine Smith is charmingly effective as Henry Lee, the love of James' life. Yet despite the sincerity of their performances, there is a sense that the contemporary plot has been insinuated into the script. It has little life of its own other than to mirror Ludwig. When James and Henry Lee find themselves overseas in World War II, the writing is so thin as to remind one of Rudnick's campy scenes in the Vietnam movie-within-a-movie in In & Out-- the difference being that in In & Out the scenes were clearly a lampoon; here it's hard to know what to make of them.

In the final analysis, it's hard to know what to make of Valhalla too. Last weekend anyway, all the presumably humorous references to boners and nipples paled next to the eloquent dialogue of Tennessee Williams. (Of course, 50 years ago most theatergoers thought Williams was prurient too.) As Act Two spins into the realm of the fantastical, audiences will either embrace the play's uniqueness or think it's imploding before their very eyes. But about one thing there can be little dispute: You're sure to have a better time if you like the music of Wagner.

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