Heady Amusements


Playwrights worry about pleasing audiences, but probably no playwright has ever worried about it as openly as Christopher Durang does in Betty’s Summer Vacation. He worries so much that he’s actually put the audience into his cast of characters. While the play’s people and events come from deep, recurrent obsessions inside him, these newly internalized voices imply a fresh nervousness about the public’s needs. As a result, Betty’s Summer Vacation is a Chris Durang play which is also both a critique of a Chris Durang play and a critique of the sensation-hungry, media-drilled viewer’s way of critiquing plays and every other aspect of the culture. Instead of leaving Durang’s obsessions on the level of personal statement, this tactic tests them against the widest contemporary context. We get to see the extent to which
Durang’s inner terrors match and don’t match those of the world around him, and thereby discover a whole new set of reasons to be terrified.

That fact is comic; like most of Durang’s terrifying plays, Betty’s Summer Vacation is a comedy, often extremely funny, to which the newly deepened perspective adds a disquieting shift in tone. It’s a comedy meant not to drive fears away but to give one nightmares about them. We want to be entertained, constantly if possible; but what most entertains us is also what most upsets us. And when the media start applying the values of entertainment to public life on the one hand and to the private conduct of families on the other, well— this is where Durang’s new terrors begin.

Betty, his heroine, is also his index of normalcy, a rational, independent, lonely young woman who takes a share in a summer cottage, location unspecified, with a young woman friend. The friend, it turns out, is far more troubled than she appears, and even at that is the cottage’s second sanest resident, its other occupants including her actively deranged mother (who owns the place), a lump of male pulchritude whose only thought is of constant gonadal gratification, and a reclusive young man who carries a very large hatbox and gets visibly upset if anyone mentions Night Must Fall. And even before the heads start to roll, and the revelations of rape, incest, child abuse, and murder unfold, the cottage has the added eerieness of coming supplied with a laugh track— one that finds even the telephoned news of a fatal car crash funny, and will gradually start getting more and more peremptory in its demands. Before you know where you are, there are breakthroughs of several different sorts, including a dry run of what the whole chaotic frenzy might look like on Court TV, before reaching the final cataclysm.

Guaranteed to offend almost everyone with some aspect of its bright-cheeked, amoral bluntness, the play gives no quarter even to what seems to be Durang’s own wistful desire, expressed through Betty, for some guiding principle that can govern human relations in a world where everything is trafficked in so openly that all modes of decency have broken down. Every time Betty makes an appeal to higher principle, or exercises a liberal neutrality in the face of some breach, she immediately sees a relative innocent get victimized by either anarchic savagery or the right-wing mania to punish it. What used to be private horrors have been socialized into public totems; we’ve gone from the Freudian into the Sadeian Age. The public voice, switching sides with frightening ease, gives every action or assertion an extra queasiness. While the laughter lets your inhibitions down, the constant clash of principles induces a kind of moral motion sickness, to cure which no Dramamine, or drama-
meaning, has yet been invented.

Any invention seems feasible, though, after you’ve seen Nicholas Martin’s production, which animates the script with a perfect balance of sweetness and ferocity, getting important help from Thomas Lynch’s
innocent-looking right-angled set.
Kellie Overbey’s Betty, simple, strong, and demure, is the optimal Alice for this booby-trapped Wonderland, while Julie Lund calibrates perfectly the frenzy of her histrionic pal. Topping the bill, though, is Kristine Nielsen, as the sanity-free landlady. The second-act sequence in which she populates an entire courtroom by herself is a bravura feat unlikely to get the hand it deserves, since many, like me, will be too exhausted by it to applaud.

Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall has presumably not been revived by the National Actors Theatre just as a footnote to Durang, but it’s hard to think of other reasons. The company’s slow devolution from The Crucible and The Master Builder to The Gin Game and this mild 1935 thriller makes a good microcosm of what happens to repertory ambitions in the glare of Broadway spotlights, where all higher principles get dragged down to box-office level— the single best argument for subsidized theater.

Meantime, John Tillinger’s production of the antique piece misguidedly makes it seem even more antique—
giving it a black-and-white movie look, kidding the script’s attempts at false trails— while weirdly trying to jazz it up, with bits like a final fire effect that, ironically, cater to just the kind of contemporary bloodlust Durang’s trying to exorcise. Tillinger’s cast has some good points, though, beginning with Matthew Broderick’s cheeky, cheery killer, and with Patricia Kilgarriff as the disgruntled cook, seizing every laugh line that comes her way. J. Smith Cameron, as the girl who almost falls for the killer, will probably make sense of the role in time; Judy Parfitt, altogether too strong and healthy-seeming for the invalid victim, is another of Tillinger’s miscalculations. The real problem, though, is that, two movie versions later, we all already know whodunit.

We know whodunit in Macbeth, too, James Thurber notwithstanding. But there’s always the hope that some director and actor will be able to show us why. Ron Daniels’s production, with Bill Camp in the role, racks up points for clarity of image, with its bare, circular stage, and of speech: Within his limits, Camp is a good, dryly ironic deliverer of the verse. But that’s as far as their credit goes. Having set up his open stage, Daniels clutters it, in almost every second scene, with unrevealing movement and ineffective effects. Camp, once he’s latched onto his despair after Duncan’s murder, almost never lets it go or grow; his Macbeth can rise to anger or anxiety, but not deepen, reducing the drama to stasis. Luckily, he, like the evening as a whole, is enlivened by a marvel— Elizabeth Marvel, to be specific. And her specificity, as Lady Macbeth, is the point. Where Camp rarely connects feeling to the role in more than a general way, Marvel, with fewer appearances, has found a sequence of emotions in which to ground each of her scenes. She’s chosen them each, too, to be slightly different from what you normally expect: The opening letter scene, for instance, resounds with gloating laughter; this lady can’t wait to be queen. Those who’ve seen Marvel as Cressida or Thérèse Raquin don’t need to be told how powerfully she can anchor her words to her feelings. While her performance is what cuts most strongly through the blur of Daniels’s production, it’s only fair to add that he himself seems to make active efforts to cut through it: There’s strong, focused work from Stephen Pelinski (Macduff), Starla Benford (Lady Macduff), and Jonathan Hammond (Ross). But why doesn’t Daniels stick with the lucidity his bare stage seems to invite? Why doesn’t Macbeth the war hero stay honest? Maybe the destruction of one’s best self is just a male thing.

Archive Highlights