Rudnick does not rise again to the heights of Helene, though as high-camping Mr. Charles, Robert Saoud — in polyester, fuchsia, and a whipped-cream hairpiece — pulls off a bravura 60-second history of American gay theater that speed-skates from Tennessee Williams and A Chorus Line to Torch Song Trilogy, Tony Kushner, and "gratuitous frontal male nudity." At least Rudnick makes a fervent point with Mr. Charles: the playwright is angry that the assimilation of gay identity into mainstream American culture has rendered the Quentin Crisps of the world an embarrassment to some of their gay brethren. Barbara Ellen Diggs, frumpily yet beatifically embodied by Kerry A. Dowling, springs less from Rudnick's conviction than from the women's magazines of his childhood. The Midwestern mother of a gay son who died of AIDS, this Hannah Pitt of the yarn world is supposed to have overcome personal tragedy by creative endeavor. But whether we're laughing with or at her is a stickling question.
Paul Daigneault helms the slickly amusing production, which unfolds on set designer Cristina Todesco's variously accessorized red-tile circle. Rudnick does manage, albeit implausibly, to bring his three characters together for a sort of celebratory party kicked off by shopping-bag-toting Shane's discovery of the redemptive powers of reduced-price retail. And Bud Weber is charming as this hot-bodied hustler with an inkling of grace. But the message slung toward the bassinets in the final quarter of The New Century is little more than carpe diem — hardly the Sermon on the Mount. Then again, Jesus saved — just not on Ralph Lauren.
New Repertory Theatre's Cabaret (at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through February 1) is a good show — spirited and professional. But that's what it feels like: a show, in which all of the dinginess, decadence, and menace built into the award-winning 1966 Broadway musical based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories is being exhibited rather than experienced. Yes, I know it's not really 1930 in a Weimar Berlin toppling toward the Nazis at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, where outgoing artistic director Rick Lombardo's well-sung but insufficiently chilling production unfolds, its fresh-faced Kit Kat girls striking eager-beaver sex poses as a newsreel-projection Hitler rants upon the neatly planked stage floor. But Cabaret needs an air of threat, depravity, and escalating desperation to go along with its showmanship. And the New Rep production — though it borrows a few tough ideas from the Sam Mendes–directed 1998 revival that ran at Studio 54 for six years — smacks too much of Busby Berkeley and not enough of Brecht.
Of course, Cabaret (not to be confused with Bob Fosse's 1972 film adaptation) is really two musicals wrapped into one brassy, jazzy score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (with libretto by Joe Masteroff). One is the seedy, sneering entertainment set in the subterranean Kit Kat Club and overseen by the garish MC, who's played here with more vaudeville flair than either real or feigned nastiness by a nonetheless compelling John Kuntz in tuxedo and eye shadow that give way to a diaper and a shiner (and, in the end, to the pink triangle with which the Nazis tagged homosexuals). The other comprises the bittersweet love stories set in the world outside the club, where struggling bisexual American writer Cliff Bradshaw tries to woo freewheeling Brit cabaret singer Sally Bowles out of the spotlight and behind a picket fence while spinster landlady Fräulein Schneider takes a chance — and then takes it back — on late-life romance with Herr Schultz, the German-Jewish fruit vendor who fails to perceive the stink of Nazi rancor amid the scent of pineapples and pears.