Fifteen years is about the right interval for me between reprises of Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy, a funny playwright's funniest play. Although the Actor's Theatre production took CL's Best Comedy honors in 1996, I'd nearly forgotten the piece when I entered Petra's Piano Bar last week for a preview performance of the current Stephen Seay Productions version. Lucky me, since it's better to be surprised by the odd courtship of bisexual Bruce and lovelorn Prudence as it's lifted from mere metro neurosis to inspired insanity through the intervention of the couple's certifiable therapists, Stuart Framingham and Charlotte Wallace.
A vast vista of hilarious idiosyncrasies and inadequacies unfolds as we get to know Bruce's therapist, but in the wonderfully wacky Tania Kelly's spasmodic rendition, Charlotte's encouraging euphorias tower over the zany backdrop of her appalling people skills. Charlotte desperately needs assistance articulating such basic words in her life as "patient" and "secretary," and cannot even remember Bruce without opening his file, but our hero is in such urgent need of healing — and female booty — that he gratefully leaps over these obstacles.
While there are moments when you will question Charlotte's professional ethics, the brunt of Durang's assault on the false god of psychiatry is directed at the vile and predatory Framingham. Christopher Jones captures Stuart's elusive mix of bullying, malicious aggression and his underlying self-doubt to perverted perfection. If he were a tad uglier, he'd be more ridiculous, but we take huge satisfaction in Jones' ultimate defeat in a restaurant scene to end all restaurant scenes.
If you've seen Seay and Leslie Ann Giles in Commedia Cinderella or any of their other Tarradiddle treasures at Children's Theatre in recent years — or House of Yes, their previous Petra's exploit — there is little need to expound upon their peerless rapport as Bruce and Prudence. Seay's signature impudence arrives intact, occasionally spiced with a strategically placed crying fit, always getting the right reaction from Giles: startled, revolted, and finally conquered.
Nobody will persuade Hank West partisans that anyone can equal his 1996 portrayal of Bob, Bruce's boyfriend, but Jay Russell's pouty, selfish petulance doesn't disappoint. His flamboyant efforts at manipulation actually help us to empathize with Bruce in the uproarious final scene of Act 1. As for Austin Houdek, it would likely spoil one of Durang's running jokes to describe his role as Andrew too precisely, but he's almost assertive enough in his transformation from servility to biker stud.
If Beyond Therapy whets your appetite for more Durang, there are second helpings up in Cornelius at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center, where Stupid Human Tricks: An Evening of Comedies by Christopher Durang is entering its second week. Best of the four playlets are the two that flank the evening, "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls" to begin the smorgasbord and "Wanda's Visit" to cap the feast.
"Southern Belle" lampoons Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Directed by Rachel Jeffreys, it features a fluttery Becky Porter as Amanda Wingvalley and a promising performance by Ben Pierce as her reclusive son Lawrence — the delicate Laura we know and love, but twisted. He collects glass swizzle sticks instead of gleaming transparent unicorns, and he's noticeably more peevish. The next two pieces, "The Funeral Parlor" and "DMV Tyrant," barely rise to the level of SNL sketches on a mediocre night.
"Wanda," however, reminds us of Durang's special gift: creating a gallery of deliciously annoying people and having them aggravate one another to a deranged climax. Directing this gem, Anne Lambert gives herself the plum title role as she looks up an old flame (Phil Robertson). But do notice the superb Joanna Gerdy's grumbling indulgence of husband Jim's disastrous caprice and the seething hospitality she extends to Wanda in the face of her clingy eccentricities.
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