To borrow language from Christopher Durang DRA ’74, I have some major issues with the Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production of his play “Betty’s Summer Vacation.”
With all of the instincts of the creators of “Real World” but none of the legal limitations, Durang throws together a killer, a flasher, a sex maniac, and a handful of co-dependents in a summer house to see what happens when people stop being nice and start getting real — or something.
First, let’s meet Betty (Julie Lauren), the designated voice of reason. She’s nice — maybe even too nice. She spends all her time fending off Buck (Matt Farnsworth), who is dippy, sex-crazed, and strangely orange-colored and muscled a la Barbie’s Ken. Conveniently enough, his entire character is happily contained in his first line: “Hi there, I’m Buck.” That’s about all you need to know. Oh, and he totes “dick pix.”
Mrs. Siezmagraff (Lizbeth Mackay) and Trudy (Cameron Blair) are a whacked-out mother and daughter pair. As a child, Trudy’s (dead) father molested her, but Siezmagraff refuses to acknowledge her wife-beating husband’s crimes. Instead, she prefers to spend her golden years foraging for (more) sexual deviants like Mr. Vanislaw (Matthew Cowles). Vanislaw is an exhibitionist who frolics around in his raincoat and Converse sneakers with the panache of Gene Kelly. He seems to be the sole element of genuine whimsy in Durang’s work. Hate to give it away, but — he’s not.
When Trudy’s not working through her trauma or just plain whining, she chases Keith (Jared Reed), a quasi-Mr. Bean figure who admits to a penchant for decapitation sparked by his own experience of sexual abuse.
Finally, there are “the voices” (Jordan Gelber, Adrienne Carter DRA ’99 and Louis Butelli). Oh, the voices. A vehicle for Durang’s social commentary, they start the show as an innocent laugh track to the action, but by the end they’re disturbingly infantile harpies demanding fresh meat and spicier scandals at every turn.
And, of course, they get it. Rape, vomit, murder, incest, ’80s-style formalwear, castration and emotional abuse come to a breathless climax with a showdown at the OK Corral of the post-modern age: Court TV. Filled with pseudo-legal terminology, tearful confessions, reconciliations and the all-important triumphant exoneration, the scene gratifies even the voices. It’s unanimous: they are “moved out of their minds.” Even though Mackay delivers a stunning monologue, we’re not.
Durang’s show is hysterically funny as it brutally exposes the voyeurism, permissiveness, narcissism and general grossness of modern culture, especially the pop culture of so-called reality TV. The fun of it is that by slicing and dicing so finely the reality genre — not to mention all the little itty-bitty subgenres — he reveals what must be his own fascination with it all. It’s deliciously clear that he’s not just the writer; he’s also a consumer.
But as a production, “Betty’s Summer Vacation” has problems. It suffers from uneven performances; Reed’s Keith is creepy but unformed, while Blair’s Trudy is annoying and flat, above and beyond the intentionally tedious character. But most unfortunate is Lauren’s Betty, who isn’t the sympathetic, reasonable character that Durang seems to have in mind. Instead of providing a fresh contrast to the careless chaos of the rest, she’s just sour.
The set design is generally serviceable but unremarkable: the starkly clean whiteness and quasi-ocean view make it every beach house you’ve ever seen. But the final scene, in which Betty takes a rather overwrought and extended walk on the beach, is weak. The dramatic lighting and deserted stage might qualify the space as a lonely alley or a hundred other theatrical cliches but showed no trace of the would-be wind-swept shore where the scene actually takes place.
With Betty’s final monologue on the beach, the show ends on a strange note, neither funny nor even particularly interesting. It’s an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise brilliant piece of writing and a generally well-rounded, satisfyingly caustic production.