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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Paul Rudnick : Changing the Way America Thinks About Gays

April 25, 1993|Janny Scott | Janny Scott covers ideas and intellectual trends for The Times

NEW YORK — Nowhere has the extraordinary flowering of art on openly gay themes been more evident than in recent American theater, where plays exploring gay themes are helping to transform the role of gays and gay issues in society. In a movement that began with the modern gay-rights movement in 1969, and has gathered momentum since the advent of AIDS, homosexual artists have produced an explosion of important work that has catapulted gay issues into the mainstream of American culture.

No longer are the country's greatest homosexual writers working under cover, as Tennessee Williams did; and no longer is the work of gay artists necessarily ghettoized as gay art. In fiction, history and biography, gay and lesbian writing is leaving behind the small, independent presses where it began and finding a place in major commercial publishing houses, college classrooms and the libraries of straight readers. With the arts in the vanguard in shifting public sensibilities, concerns once seen narrowly as gay are being embraced as universal. Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," which uses the AIDS epidemic to expose the hypocrisy of American society, won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this month. It is about to open on Broadway and is being hailed as a new American masterpiece.

One of the hotter tickets off-Broadway this spring is "Jeffrey," playwright Paul Rudnick's romantic comedy about a gay man who is crazy about sex but swears off it out of fear of AIDS--then has the misfortune to flip for a man who happens to be HIV-positive. The play is an old-fashioned romantic comedy, Gershwin songs and all. But the backdrop is gay America in the 1990s--health clubs, AIDS fund-raisers, memorial services, a masturbation club, a gay-pride march, occasional visits from Mother Teresa.

Rudnick, now being likened to Oscar Wilde, is the 36-year-old, Yale-educated author of the 1991 Broadway play "I Hate Hamlet;" two novels, "Social Disease" and "I'll Take It," and the forthcoming film, "Addams Family Values," due out in November. A spectacularly literate and humorous conversationalist with big brown eyes and an angular, animated face, he was interviewed recently in a small Greenwich Village restaurant on the subject of the explosion of gay themes in the arts and its impact on American culture.

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Question: More and more gay playwrights and other artists are openly addressing gay issues. How is this affecting the arts?

Answer: What once were considered minority voices, whether it's women like Wendy Wasserstein or African-American writers like August Wilson or George Wolfe or gay writers like Tony Kushner, suddenly these are stories that the world is fascinated by. Because there is a freshness; these are people whose stories were not allowed to be told previously. You have that excitement of characters and thoughts and plot lines that just haven't seen the light of day. That, aside from any political issues involved, is just exciting theater. And those plays are now being perceived as extremely commercial. . . . It's almost hard to find a play without a gay character, whether it's "Heidi Chronicles" or even in Neil Simon--even in "Biloxi Blues" there was a gay character. You no longer need a special dispensation from the theater pope to write on gay matters. So it's a very exhilarating time to be in the theater. And I think, gradually, it will creep into the other media.

Theater, especially in terms of AIDS, was completely in the vanguard in terms of information. That was when theater suddenly was revitalized, I think, by "The Normal Heart." No one else would touch that subject. People were, for the first time in decades, looking to the theater for . . . what was happening in the world. There was no other way to get that data. It wasn't even in the papers that much. Suddenly, theater had this wildly active function; it didn't seem to be this sort of dead form any more. And that play has been done in hundreds of productions all over the world.

Especially if you take something like "Angels in America," there's just this buzz in the air. Theater is talking about matters--gay, straight, whatever--that people want to hear discussed, that they're confused by, concerned by, that actually could affect their lives. And if they could be told, "Look, this playwright is trying to make sense of it," that there's real analysis going on, they'll go to the theater. There's that dialogue with the audience.

Q: Are works like those affecting straight artists?

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