ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While their revival of Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy which has also been long absent from New York, isn't quite as satisfying, the timing for giving audiences a chance to look at one of this worthy playwright's early plays couldn't be better.
You see, while Durang is a prolific playwright widely admired for his witty and drolly absurd skewering of established institutions and mores, he didn't hit the big awards bulls eye until last year with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. And it so happens that David Hyde Pierce, one of the stars of that Tony winning riff on Chekhov, played the smallest role in the 1982 Broadway production of Beyond Therapy. What's more there comes a point in the second act when the absurdly over-the-top silliness gives way to the expression of a meaningful theme and the dialogue foreshadows Durang's delving more deeply into Chekhov as he did with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
The Chekhovian references notwithstanding, don't expect Beyond Therapy to rise above being a promising but flawed fledgling work. That said, there's some validity to the program's background notes statement that the more things change the more they remain the same. Though the dating. patterns of New York singles, both heterosexual and homosexual, have changed since the play's early 1980s setting, the yearning for a meaningful relationship hasn't. Unfortunately, the outrageousness of the characters and situations, at least as it comes off now, is more sitcom-ish than shocking.
In fairness to the current cast, even the initial off-Broadway production (with Diane Wiest and John Lithgow as the needy mismatched couple) only moved to Broadway because audiences and critics liked Durang's often hilarious send-up of psychological wisdom and current social mores. But it failed then, and does now, to strike enough of a balance between the farcical elements and the more serious concerns beneath the surface.
It was fun to watch the mismatched pair of dysfunctional thirty-something interact with each other and their even more dysfunctional psychotherapists, they never rose above their unbelievable wackiness. Consequently Beyond Therapy lasted for only twenty-one performances. The audacious humor did make it a favorite with many regional theater audiences, but it never returned to New York. Nor did a stellar cast (Julie Hagerty, Jeff Goldblum, Glenda Jackson and Tom Conti) help to make the movie more of a hit than the Broadway production.
TACT's artistic director and this revival's helmer has done a lot of things right. For starters, he has wisely not tried to move the play out of its era. Instead he's let the audience do its own mental updating (for example, visualizing Prudence (Liv Roth) and Bruce (Mark Alhadeff) meeting through an internet matchmaking website instead of the personal ads that were once big money makers for print publications like New York Magazine and long defunct Saturday Review. For audience members too young to be familiar with the various cultural references, Mr. Evans has included a fun glossary with definitions in quiz format.
Thomas Cariello's, set handily accommodates four locations: the restaurant of Prudence and Bruce's first and subsequent meetings. . .Bruce's apartment. . . the offices of their respective shrinks (Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Charlotte Wallace and Karl Kenzler as Dr. Stuart Framingham) which are amusingly detailed with sly period defining touches (e.g. a framed painting of a favorite psychological testing device, the Roschark ink blot).
Though Mark Alhadeff and Liv Rooth work hard and often effectively they can ignite just so much spark from this one-liner studded dating game. Unsurprisingly, the funniest lines and most caustic skewering is applied to the respective therapists — Dr. Stuart Framingham , whose inappropriate sexual behavior has led to a two-day fling with Prudence proves that his macho aggressiveness is mostly talk. Bruce's shrink, Mrs. Wallace, is a disorganized New Age flake who tends to talk more about herself than listen to her patients. And, oh yes, she's obsessively attached to a Snoopy doll. Darlow is the more likeable and on the mark of these two quacks, and costume designer Kim Krumm Sorenson nicely enhances her colorful persona.
Ultimately, even the therapy gags, like the rest of the play's overabundance of jokes, tend to underscore the failure of any of these characters to rise above their cartoonishness and make us buy into the happy ending as anything more than a funny but superficial contrivance. In a special directorial touch, the actors double as dancing prop movers as the back wall flips open at the end of each scene. This is amusing once or twice but becomes tiresome and seems more and more like a desperate device. The fact that at the performance I attended the audience laughed louder and harder at these gimmicky interludes than other parts of the play speaks for itself.
Bruce's rationale for a happy ending with both Prudence and Bob (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) is the script's most dated aspect. And yet, it makes a case for the play's and this production's strong points. Hawkins's Bob is the character who lights sparks as soon as he arrives on stage. He goes on to pretty much steal the show. His scene with Bruce's therapist is a highlight of the shorter and better second act. No wonder Durang left it to this character to connect the what at times feels like a series of comic sketches.
Bob brings me back to my comment about Beyond Therapy foreshadowing Durang's later and more successful Chekhov linked play. He brings a gun on scene but when he pulls the trigger it proves to be a mere conceit — just like all that between scenes dancing.