Paul Rudnick, ever the stylish and witty playwright, pressed foot to pedal on his imaginative overdrive to see how far it would take him into his new comedy, and, after two years of dreamy labors, it seems to have taken him into an elegant terrain akin to the Main Line manse where Tracy Lord luxuriated in that bygone best of all possible worlds.
The result, which is now in previews prior to a Nov. 14 opening at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I, is Regrets Only, a retouched "Vanity Fair" kind of view of marriage as it is practiced in modern-day Manhattan by husband, wife - and best friend.
"I just love the formal challenge of writing a real drawing-room comedy - a play that's going to be set in a Fifth Avenue penthouse that has been strikingly designed by Michael Yeargan, with a proper staircase for entrances by stunning women in William Ivey Long gowns." (Smoke's not really streaming out of Rudnick's ears, but it's clear he's cooking.)
"I'm such a fan of writers like Philip Barry and Noël Coward - not to mention Oscar Wilde - and I thought that it would be such a treat to see if it were still possible to have that kind of fun, with a very contemporary madness attached to it." (This "madness" has even older theatrical roots, but he ain't showing 'em - to preserve his second-act surprise.)
Suffice to say, he enjoyed the exercise of creating a handsome drawing room and telling himself to draw!: "I like the sheer technical discipline of saying, 'Okay, you've got one beautiful drawing room, with so many entrances and exits. You're going to be getting the people on and off stage gracefully and with as much humor as possible. Let's see how it works.' I think it's enormously difficult - and, if you can bring that off, it's enormously pleasurable, both for the writer and for the audience. When you watch The Philadelphia Story or Hay Fever, you feel like you're in such good hands, and you can feel the level of the audience just delighting in that kind of theatrical joy. That's what I was aiming for. "A real sense of high-style comedy is very daunting because, when it works, it needs to feel effortless and like the most delicious dessert - but that takes the hardest work imaginable, and that's why I have so much respect for playwrights who manage it. It also requires a staggeringly difficult degree of acting, which is why I feel spoiled by this cast."
Christine Baranski, until recently Mame Dennis Burnside of Beekman Place and, therefore, thoroughly familiar with the ups and downs of penthouse staircases, rules this rarefied Rudnick roost - "a dazzling socialite," he calls her, "a woman who has lived for fashion" and who, almost parenthetically, has also raised a family. Her closest friend and constant escort is a brand-name designer, "a real gentleman of the old school along the lines of a Bill Blass or an Oscar de la Renta. Men of that caliber were the first designers America knew by name. They established that level of both branding and style; a woman could feel a degree of absolute comfort wearing their gowns. Although the play is not in any way directly based on them, it was gentlemen like that that I always found inspiring."
George Grizzard fills the Bill Blass-like bill, and David Rasche occupies the third corner of the triangle as Baranski's hubby, one of Manhattan's most successful "white-shoe" attorneys. Her mother, a grand socialite of the old school, is played by the English actress Sian Phillips, and the youngster underfoot is Diane Davis. The maid who keeps them relatively real and close to the pavement is played by Jackie Hoffman.
Christopher Ashley, who has helmed every Rudnick play since Jeffrey, is directing.
What prompted this play, says Rudnick, was the current cultural discussion of marriage. "You wonder what value does marriage still have for anyone? - straight, gay, whatever. This play is about personal responsibility - what do we owe to ourselves, and what do we owe to our friends? - and that all can swirl around marriage, particularly for this kind of drawing-room comedy. This is about one of your great Manhattan marriages and one of your great Manhattan friendships - how those relationships support each other, and how those relationships conflict with each other. Who do you have sex with, and who do you have fun with? Are they always the same person? Who understands you best? Who drives you insane? Who do you run to when you have a problem, and who is the problem? Who is your great romance, and who is your great friend? The play deals with all those questions, and, even though it deals with a very glamorous level of Manhattan society, it's still a situation anyone - particularly anyone in any sort of marriage - will come across.
"Sometimes I think the really great marriages always involve the two people who are married to each other - and a third party, a best friend, another man/another woman, someone whom both partners can confide in, someone who may be married themselves.
"I've been in a relationship for 13 years. You need your partner, and you need your pals."