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Glenda Frank

"Regrets Only"

"Regrets Only" by Paul Rudnick
Manhattan Theatre Club, Center Stage, Stage I.
131 W. 55 St., NYC
Opened Nov. 19, 2006. Open run.
For tickets call 212-581-1212, $67.50.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank

Even before the play begins, the seven entrances in the elegant penthouse set by Michael Yeargan at Manhattan Theatre Club announce that "Regrets Only," the latest comedy by Paul Rudnick ("Jeffrey"), is likely to be a farce. And sure enough, as the doorbell rings, Myra Kesselman (Jackie Hoffman) enters, a proper enough maid in a black and white uniform. She greets Hank Hadley (George Grizzard) , THE famous designer and old friend of the McCullough family, with a monologue in brogue, packed with a dozen Irish clichés. He retorts, Myra, what are you doing? You sound like a retarded leprechaun.

Myra is going to regale us with half a dozen accents and costume accessories, from a French beret tilted just so to a Jewish-grandmother's fur wrap and a nun's habit (all with appropriate gestures), as she makes her way through the several crises of the McCullough clan. I wouldn't usually find this funny, but Rudnick, who is at the top of his form, has proven himself a master at weaving farce as comic relief into a comedy of manner. Just think of Myra as the tinsel on the tree. Her routines – bizarre and unexpected – divert us while the family members consider their option and regroup.

Center stage in every crisis is Tibby, the sophisticated and sexy mother of the clan, in a drop-dead gorgeous, red, sequined gown (William Ivey Long, costumes). But as played by the classy Christine Baranksi – at the top of her form, Tibby is more than just eye candy. Sounding like a character from a Noel Coward play, Tibby rivets our attention even as her handsome lawyer husband (David Rasche) debates if he wants to accept the president's invitation and fly to D.C. to fine-tune a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage – and to take Spencer, his seven-figure salaried lawyer daughter, with him. Tibby holds center stage as her daughter (Diane Davis) announces her marriage, when her aging-beautifully mother (Sian Phillips) arrives dressed in garbage bags and shoe boxes instead of Dior and Prada, and while Hank, her best friend, arranges a city-wide boycott by the gay community.

Although Tibby is the glue, sparkle and wit, the storyline belongs to Hank Hadley. Hank has never been an activist, never wanted to marry or rear a family. But the recent death of his surgeon-lover of cancer after 38 years together has rocked his world. He feels betrayed by the people closest to him when they casually choose career over friendship. Between Act I and II he makes a few calls, and the people he speaks with make a few call, and pretty soon Spencer, the daughter, discovers that the florist, the caterer, and most of the shops in Manhattan are closed the day before her wedding. No one calls it a boycott.

This is a familiar concept, from the sex-strike in Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" (411 BCE) to the total disappearance of African-Americans in Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence" (1965), but Rudnick does it so well. It has a new bite. Director Christopher Ashley keeps the pace lively and varied, fine-tuning all the performances although at times he has too heavy a touch and the characters dissolve into the hysterics that marred old productions of Neil Simon plays. But when Grizzard and Barankski rule the stage, they hit a perfect 10 quip after quip, not to mention those delicious one-liners. George Grizzard's star quality has only increased with age while his acting has been honed so fine that all he needs is a gesture or intonation to realize Hank's need for affection, his regrets and his easy use of power to hammer home a point.

Even as the characters boast of being "endlessly superficial," they reveal unforeseen depth. The comedy emanates from who they are, and they have learned to live stylishly with their past. Explaining why she kept her mother as a negative model when she reared her daughter, Tibby recalls that when she was anorexic, her mother told her: "Good for you! Keep going!"

Order your tickets now. This comedy is sure to be a hit.

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