RITA RUDNER, scarcely speaking above a whisper, carefully surveys the audience gathered for her HBO special, "One Night Stand," with her innocent doe-eyed stare. Casting her blue eyes demurely downward -- her mane of hair a curled halo about her head -- she shyly delivers her first joke.
"When I came to New York I had an apartment near Central Park," she recalls smiling sweetly. "I didn't have a view but if I listened closely I could hear the screams for help."
She quietly turns to another subject. "Never lend money to a friend. You can't ask for it back. The only thing you can do," she advises, "is to go to the friend's house and break something of equal value. Oops! I'm sorry!" She giggles behind her hand.
Rudner then refers to her recent marriage. "It was a lovely ceremony but when it got to the 'for better or for worse' part, we said 'for better or forget it.' "
Playing the bewildered victim of a confused and schizophrenic society Rudner's understated humor packs a big wallop. Her shrewd observations, often autobiographical, hit the mark with ironic bite.
Rudner, who won the 1990 American Comedy Award as Best Female Stand-Up Comic, is bringing her low-key act to Havre de Grace High School Sunday evening as a Quackers Comedy Club special. The comedian (with special guest Jonathan Katz) is scheduled to perform her show at 7 and 10 p.m.
Her targets are love and marriage, shopping, family reunions, credit-cards, the horror of department store dressing room mirrors . . . anything and everything connected with ordinary, everyday happenings told from the female point of view.
Sometimes she will slip in a bit of sly, political humor.
"I am not a feminist humorist, but a feminist definitely," she declared in familiar wispy tones during a telephone interview from her Hollywood home. "I just hope I'm funny. Some political viewpoints belong in my act but I did not become a comedian to change the world. I never paint women in a bad light. I just don't preach."
Often compared to zany comedian Gracie Allen of Burns and Allen fame, Rudner claims her heroes are Jack Benny and Woody Allen.
"I rented the Jack Benny show tapes and listened to his radio shows when I started. They were absolutely brilliant. Woody Allen is offbeat, subtle. I am not an aggressive comedian, not really angry . . . more perplexed. I hate confrontations. I look at things from a cockeyed angle but I don't like to be hostile."
Married to British comedy writer and producer Martin Bergman, Rudner and her husband live on the side of a mountain in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Humor is very important in our marriage," she said. "He makes me laugh all the time."
One week a month, the performer, who writes all her own material, takes to the road and one night stands across the country. "I really like it," she said. "I can pick what I want to do."
The rest of the time Rudner is busy penning screenplays in collaboration with Bergman which they hope to sell to the feature film market.
She has also completed a book, "It Was On Sale When I Lay Down on It." "There are no dark secrets in my family," she said, laughing. "The book only contains essays of my act, things that happen in my life . . . my husband and his car . . . how cold my feet are."
In discussing the timeless man and woman relationship, she debunks the myth of the older, wiser man. "Men don't mature I've discovered. So you might as well marry a younger one."
The recently wed comedian has no immediate plans to start a family. "I am a fertility goddess," she said. "In my act I talk about having a baby but I am terrified of having one. I guess we'll start with a cardboard infant on the floor, graduate to a doll, then, maybe, a baby.
"We're all children anyway," she quipped. "Adults are just little kids who owe money."
An only child Rudner was born and raised in Miami. By age 14 she was a professional dancer. After zipping through high school, she arrived on the New York show scene one year later and was soon cast in a role in the national touring company of "Zorba." She then went on to appear in "Annie," "The Magic Show," "Mack and Mabel," "Follies" and "Promises, Promises" on Broadway.
"I'm too old to dance now," she said. "Looking back on it all I was very young. But it worked for me. I was always observant of people but very shy. At 25 I started to talk . . . and found out people thought I was funny . . . so I went solo and haven't stopped talking since."
Tickets for the 7 and 10 p.m. Rita Rudner shows are $20/$30. For reservations and further information call 939-2877.