We all remember June 12, 2016, when 49 people were shot and killed at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, in a terrorist attack and hate crime. Some may also remember that this horrible tragedy, the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001, fell on the eve of that year’s Tony Awards. It also happened to be a year when people outside the theater community were paying attention to the Tonys because Hamilton took top honors in 11 categories. I don’t know about you, but when I think back to June 12, 2016, I don’t experience a desire to see a blatant dramatization of it. The creators of Big Night, now in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, clearly disagree, and the result is a frustrating play that has plenty to say and yet manages to say nothing at all.
Written by Paul Rudnick, who is known for his satirical works, the story starts out simply enough. We meet Michael (Brian Hutchison), a semi-openly gay actor who has finally had a breakout moment in his uphill battle of a career and earned himself an Oscar nomination. He anxiously prepares for the awards ceremony in a Beverly Hills hotel suite (John Lee Beatty’s stunning set is the very best element in the entire production), and his conversation with his ambitious young agent, Cary (Max Jenkins) is a familiar Hollywood scene with just enough in-jokes to draw laughs from a Los Angeles audience. A cast of characters proceeds to descend upon the suite, each with their own agenda. Eddie (Tom Phelan), Michael’s transgender nephew, is a young activist desperately trying to convince his uncle to use his potential acceptance speech to condemn the Academy for a continued lack of diversity. Cary, who is distracted by dreams of dollar signs and an offer for Michael to join the Star Wars franchise, of course hates this idea, afraid it would be a detrimental career move. Esther (Wendie Malick), Michael’s mother, has a knack for making everything about herself, and introduces everyone to her new girlfriend, Eleanor (Kecia Lewis), a celebrated writer with multiple Pulitzers and a tragic past. The only problem is that Michael can’t seem to get a hold of his longtime boyfriend, Austin (Luke Macfarlane).
Midway through its 85 minutes, the play makes an abrupt tonal shift when the characters hear news of a deadly mass shooting at an LGBT Youth Center Oscar party. Austin, who stopped by the Center on his way to the ceremony, escapes physically unscathed but understandably traumatized. Michael wins an Oscar and gives a nearly incoherent, distracted speech. Everyone returns to the suite and watches the news as the police hunt down the escaped shooter, wondering how they can use Michael’s new Oscar-winner status to make a meaningful statement at an important time. It is a lot for one relatively short play, and there are moments where the various workable elements seem poised to come together into something insightful. But this never happens, and the result is a disorganized mix of half-baked commentary on too many topics—celebrity, gun violence, race, activism, sexuality, family, religion. The number of boxes Rudnick attempts to check is dizzying, but fear not—if you ever start to forget where you are, the characters will cheekily and repeatedly remind you in dialogue that it is indeed a “big night.”
Many of the choices made in the writing are perplexing and lazy, resulting in conversations that would never actually occur between real people. Early on, Michael details his entire acting career down to his Law & Order guest appearances, which might be acceptable were he not talking to his agent, the single person who would have the most intimate knowledge of these details. The play is full of these moments of clunky exposition. Even the details of the shooting, the pivotal event in the story, are dramatically retold by Austin in a way that feels stilted. Everything is a tad too shiny, making the characters seem like they are in some kind of play within a play—for someone who describes helping the wounded into ambulances, the only signs anything has gone wrong in Austin’s night are his half-untucked shirt and some blood that is neatly confined to a handkerchief. If this glossy sheen diluting the events is intentional it does not come across that way, and instead makes the whole affair feel oddly disconnected.
The capable actors and solid direction by Walter Bobbie try valiantly to save the rather thankless material. Malick is the standout as Esther, a stereotypical “Jewish mother” character who at least behaves in a way that is consistent and grounded in reality. Jenkins also played the Hollywood agent type very well despite his character having the least depth, although an eleventh hour moment where he suggests the events of the evening have caused him to reexamine priorities feels unearned. I also applaud the production for casting Phelan, a trans actor, to play a trans character.
The play’s final moments do circle potentially interesting statements. As the characters crowd around a laptop to watch live footage of the police taking down the shooter, reacting as jubilantly as if watching a sporting event, one could not help but think of the way the media sensationalizes tragedy, especially in the context of a play about the entertainment industry. Then, Austin asks Michael to give the acceptance speech he would have given had the tragedy not derailed the evening. Intentionally or not, this felt a bit icky, and seemed to be touching on society’s short-term memory for tragedy in a world where there seems to be another mass shooting every day. A large part of the problem here is that it feels simply too soon to be satirizing a tragedy that occurred just over a year ago for the purpose of preachy social commentary. If it must be done, there may be a version that says something new or unexpected, but Big Night is not it.
Big Night runs at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through October 8th. Tickets range from $30-$75 and the running time is 85 minutes, no intermission. To purchase tickets, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.