* Writer: Paul Rudnick * Director: Christopher Ashley * Starring: Peter Bartlett, with Ross Gibby as “Shane” * Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York City.

“What causes homosexuality?” asks Mr. Charles, settling himself on the throne of his cable-access empire, sporting a lemon custard jacket, a paisley necktie for a belt, and a gleam in his eye born of more than one martini. “I do!”

Like a creature fashioned from the DNA of Paul Lynde in some fabulous laboratory, the title character of Paul Rudnick’s hilarious new one-act Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach embodies a gay archetype that Carl Jung overlooked: the Stereotype That Gives Us All a Bad Name. Mr. Charles apparently became so notorious for taking “nellie breaks” at politically incorrect times that he was asked to leave New York. As revenge, he has repaired to Southern Florida and taken to the airwaves with his late-night cable show, Too Gay.

Besides proclaiming that he can turn anyone gay with a look -- which makes his impromptu visits to maternity wards disturbing to new parents -- Mr. Charles provides breezy answers to questions sent in by viewers. Should gays be allowed to serve in the military? Mr. Charles thinks not. “Make remarks, not war.” Should gays be allowed marry? “Of course, to wealthy older women.” He astutely notes that only a gay disease would be treated by something called a cocktail. And he has in mind writing a few more children’s books on homosexuality, such as Uncle Patrick has a Beautiful Apartment and Aunt Cathy’s Large Friend. Mr. Charles (the magnificently prissy Peter Bartlett) is assisted throughout the program by the lovely and talented Shane (Ross Gibby), who models a new costume with each entrance. When Mr. Charles runs through his 60-second capsule history of gay theater, which he summarizes as “Love, Valour, and Gratuitous Male Frontal Nudity,” Shane appears in his best costume of the show. “Danke, Shane,” coos the host.

Paul Rudnick on a roll is one of the funniest writers in America. As playwright (Jeffrey), screenwriter (In and Out), and columnist (Premiere’s pseudonymous Libby Gelman-Waxner), Rudnick creates high-density topical humor with gay sensibility. But he’s not just a laugh machine: Mr. Charles deftly and sincerely celebrates a gay population usually ignored or ridiculed. Seen briefly last month as part of Ensemble Studio Theater’s annual one-act marathon, the half-hour play is clearly a sketch, with echoes of Saturday Night Live’s “Church Lady” and Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius (which premiered at the same theater). Think of it as a snack to tide us over until Rudnick’s next full meal.

The Advocate, June 23, 1998

| music | arts | men and sex