Playwright Christopher Durang has been on a losing streak for some time. He wanked every bit of juice out of the Catholic-school thing with Sister Mary Ignatius and has pretty much come up empty-handed ever since. Sex and Longing, his Broadway flop from 1996, had some crazy energy thanks to Sigourney Weaver and Dana Ivey. But with Betty's Summer Vacation, Durang has become a satirist without teeth.
Taking off from Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, Durang presents a summer time-share that has an inopportune laugh track and bossy voices emanating from the ceiling. The first guests to arrive are two bland young women, Betty (Jennifer Johnson) and Trudy (Jennifer Coville), the latter afflicted with diarrhea of the tongue. Her mother, Mrs. Seizmagraff (get it? seismograph?), played at an irritating pitch by Irene Blend, has the same problem; her lack of an internal monitor makes her ramble incessantly. Completing the guest list are Keith (Kevin Eib), a weird duck carrying something suspect in a hat box, and Buck (Doug Thompson), a raging satyr ("If I don't get my rocks off twenty times a day ...") who at least looks good in his underwear.
Durang's biggest topic of conversation has to do with the fact that Trudy was molested by her father, a situation her mother has always denied. What a knee-slapper! Then Betty plans a little dinner party, to which Mrs. Seizmagraff invites the invention of a bankrupt playwright: a flasher in a raincoat (Adrian Alexander). Before the first act limps to intermission, the perv has been beheaded and had his dismembered penis placed on ice in the freezer.
At least the second act introduces some actors with comic timing. Cynthia Dahlberg, Tana Ruder and D.K. Evanson embody the Greek chorus that has been speaking from the rafters. They burst through the wall wearing one-piece pajamas with stuffed hoods and take up residence on the couch. While unleashing a litany of their likes and dislikes (they're fond of tabloid celebrity tragedies), the actors playing these blobby cartoons share a respectable rhythm that does its best to wring laughs from the lifeless text.
But Durang has nowhere to go. For want of that, he stages a mock trial of the culprits responsible for Act One's mutilation. Buck gets his comeuppance, Betty survives an inferno and the play ends with a whimper like dying roadkill.
Minds Eye artistic director Christopher King has the directing credit for the show, but he doesn't direct as much as seat and unseat the actors. Johnson and Coville deliver their lines without a pulse; Blend is so hammy she could franchise a delicatessen. Alexander, however, is decent in the thankless flasher role, and Thompson's swagger would give Bus Stop a throb.
Durang might say that he's putting contemporary society's thirst for sensationalism on trial. He references John Wayne Bobbitt, O.J. Simpson and Tonya Harding, but that's all he does -- he drops their names for the ick factor but doesn't tie them to any context. Fans of Durang's earlier work will be heartsick; the man has crafted crap from yesterday's headlines and called it art.
Missouri Rep's producing artistic director Peter Altman has no apologies. "I think it's a great piece," he says. "It's one of the top-division classics of American theater, right up there with Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire."
Altman acknowledges that people might have a perception of the show "based on some horrible high-school production they saw," but he's confident that the Rep will offer "the right combination of key people and artists" to do it justice "in the right context." He adds that the Rep is doing new plays next season as well, saying that theaters should present "a good healthy repertoire where the new plays are balanced by the classics."
When I suggested that there are newer musicals that might be of interest to audiences (or to me, at least), such as Side Show, Floyd Collins, Parade or Violet, Altman was unmoved.
"I like Violet," he says. "But it isn't Guys and Dolls."