Invite Only: Stray Dog Theatre gives Paul Rudnick's Regrets Only a hilarious outing

Eleven years ago this very week, moviegoers were laughing at In & Out, which boasted a clever screenplay by Paul Rudnick. After Joan Cusack's wedding is canceled because fiancé Kevin Kline outs himself at the altar, and after Cusack's romantic overtures are rebuffed by handsome anchorman Tom Selleck because he too prefers men, the shell-shocked would-be bride staggers out of a gay bar and cries to the heavens, "Is EVERYBODY gay?!" In the felicitous Regrets Only, which is being staged by Stray Dog Theatre, Rudnick tries to answer his own question. His not surprising conclusion: Everybody who's anybody certainly is.

Once again a wedding is the locus for the action, which plays out in the svelte Manhattan home of Jack (John Reidy), a conservative, high-powered attorney; and Tibby (Lavonne Byers), his superficial wife. When their ambitious attorney daughter (Julie Venegoni) announces her engagement, Tibby persuades her dearest friend, celebrated fashion designer Hank Hadley (Thom Crain), he of blue jeans fame, to design the wedding dress. Although Hank is still mourning the recent death of his life partner, he agrees to help out.

Rudnick, as always, has a deft way with a quip. For much of the first act, he is content to hoist these shallow characters on their petards. But after President Bush enlists Jack to help write a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage — and Jack enlists his daughter to assist — the dismayed Hank decides to initiate a little banning of his own.

R.S.V.P. ASAP for Stray Dog's delightful Regrets Only, starring Thom Crain as Hank Hadley and Lavonne Byers as Tibby.
John Lamb
R.S.V.P. ASAP for Stray Dog's delightful Regrets Only, starring Thom Crain as Hank Hadley and Lavonne Byers as Tibby.

If Act One is amusingly conventional, Act Two — which takes its cue from The Day the Earth Stood Still — ventures into the realm of the surreal. Much of it is hilarious, especially when Sally Eaton makes her delayed arrival as Tibby's elitist mother and delivers a riotous monologue about life in a non-gay Manhattan. But there's a curious contradiction here: As the dialogue gets increasingly funny, the play becomes commensurately thinner. Which is to say that as the stakes increase, the play's ambitions become more transparent. Ultimately Regrets Only comes off as slighter fare than its polemical author surely intended it to be.

Again we are reminded of the difference between plays and screenplays. On a movie the director is god. In & Out director Frank Oz demanded extensive rewrites, and so reshaped Rudnick's preachy first draft script about the perils of being gay into a likable tale about the importance of being yourself. But in the theater the playwright is king. It's as if no one who works on Rudnick's original stage productions ever wants to tell him how he could improve his plays; they never satisfy quite as much as they might. That said, I should add that I laughed aloud more during the two hours of this thin broth than I laughed in the last two years of having to endure the relentless onslaught of Wendy Wasserstein's so-called comedies. Wasserstein inexplicably will go down in history as the superior playwright, but — at least in this production directed by Gary F. Bell — Rudnick goes down a lot easier on the derrière.

Considering that Rudnick is not concerned with constructing characters, the actors do well enough with roles that aren't really roles. As the oblivious yet sensitive socialite, Lavonne Byers adds yet another notch to her gun belt of performances that are shot through with precision. As her punch lines near, she resembles a marksman taking aim. Watch her: She goes very still, waits that extra split second until she has both the audience and the line in her crosshairs, then pulls the trigger. The kill is accomplished before we know what hit us.

No matter that much of the dialogue here sounds like outtakes from In & Out. And late in Act Two, when the goofy maid (Jennifer Marissa Bock) exclaims, "I love this!" Rudnick is in fact lifting one of Debbie Reynolds' best lines from his own film. I don't know if Regrets Only is to love, but it for sure delivers an agreeable and zesty good time.

 
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