note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Joe Coyne
Playwright Christopher Durang
Director Nicholas Martin
In the program Howard Stein (not Stern though it might have been) is quoted as follows:
Durang shouts for reason in an unreasonable universe and in an unreasonable society . . . He has to be offensive to be effective
Only by having such conditions razed in front of us (can) we begin the process of building, or correcting
With his uncommon talent, Christopher Durang lights a candle rather than curses the darkness
Christopher Durang has written a great many funny plays. He has written interesting plays and plays deadly in their instructive value. "Betty's Summer Vacation" which won four OBIE Awards in 1999 is not one of them. He tells us that our society is going down, consumed by its preoccupation with scandal, crimes and causation. Court TV and the failure to be responsible for our actions are two of the culprits. It is clear that Judge Christopher has watched too much of that style of television. The world is destroying itself and there is little hope. You can hear his shouting; but humor? Michael Maso, Managing Director of the Huntington, opens the playbill with, "That "Betty's Summer Vacation" is a comedy is a given." It is not. It is far off the mark in the area of humor. The flaw is a fatal one for comedy. One of the prime elements of humor (and I don't want to get too technical here) is that it has to be funny.
An assortment of characters gather for a summer share at the beach. The landlady, Mrs Siezmagraff (Andrea Martin) is the link and the guests are rejects from JerrySpringer land, but not from the same Springer show. Oversexed males cohorting with abused revenge seekers. Betty is the odd one out and a very weakened voice of reason holding Durang's unlit and broken candle.
People do laugh during the performance but with the same reasoning that Durang gives to his human laugh track hidden in the ceiling of the cottage. "We're uncomfortable. And so we laughed. We didn't know what else to do." Durang explains it all for you. Cartoon characters repeating inanities can be ignored. They do not speak to me or for me. They are there for the supposed laugh, if it ever arrives. I never even saw the possibility of a good laugh in the distance.
What then is everyone uncomfortable with? It is his preoccupation with male genitalia which may be shocking to some but it is just a kid yelling prick in a crowded spa. It is spawned by the juvenilia genitalia genre. What other than proving he can be verbally offensive would 25 penis mentions - give or take a penis or two (12 in the first act with a slightly higher 13 in the second) and throw in a few dicks (7), a familial dicky, couple of hard-ons, a boner (I had some trouble with the rest because I did not want to count adjectives such as cock in "cock teaser". Perhaps I should have considered the expression rather than the individual words. I decided to leave them out so the cocks are not in the count) Get the idea? On top of the usage is the continual exposure by the raincoated dinner guest Mr. Vanislaw and Buck, one the summer guests, who from his first "do you like flavored condoms" to his last "you're looking mighty good tonight" is just another logo. Both these characters end up with missing body parts.
George Carlin can make it funny. Durang has the ability as well, he just let the thin plot get zany and out of hand. A college or camp parody is what resulted. As Durang has stated in several prefaces and in the program guide, he started writing one play and another showed up on the paper after three pages. Too bad for us and for him. Wonder what the other play would have been like.
And then there are the folks in the ceiling, a laugh track that talks. As it was annoying to the characters, it was more than annoying to me. You can pretend it is a Greek Chorus and raises the level of the production, but it isn't: and it doesn't.
During the previews an estimated 12% of the audience failed to see the second act and while the percentage has declined since the reviews have come out (which indicated the nature of the subject matter), at the performance I attended, some people left prior to the intermission .
So who is Durang directing his spleen at? He pushes the idea of diminished capacity to the absolute extreme: not having responsibility for your actions because you had a splinter or worse when you were young. Having been abused, you can therefore abuse. The scandal obsessive individuals the play is aimed at are out there getting off on the Survivor/Temptation shows. They are not generally attending theater performances. So why does he burn this candle in our faces and curse all the darkness? Chris shut off the TV and put one third the effect into the play as you do in your cabaret shows.
Given the only bit of acting freedom, Andrea Martin (except for her courtroom scene) and Jeremiah Kissel have a chance to perform. It is far from clear what Nicholas Martin, the director, wanted from the others except an extreme caricature. Martin has chosen to limit the talented John Kurtz (and others) by not only tying them together but by tying them down. One hint: a very little whining goes a very long way.
The final line of the play goes to Betty, "I'm starting to feel better." If this is a touch of hope it is ethereal and gives us no path or way or direction. Earlier in the same monologue she has a line more in the spirit of the truncated story "I don't know what to think". Not how, but what. Wait for "Sister Mary Ignatius" or "Bette and Boo" if you want to see quality Durang and take a wide pass on this one.