Beyond help

Theatre Three offers a dysfunctional production of Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy

For 27 years now, the reputation of playwright-actor Christopher Durang has grown but not necessarily evolved, if that makes sense. Certainly, his best-known plays are produced by small professional and adventurous community theaters all over the country (he can probably afford a house in the Hamptons on the residuals from Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You alone), and he's able to have these same scripts world-premiered at places like Lincoln Center Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre.

But when you review the canon of mostly one-acts that Durang has generated over the last quarter of a century, you can see that his fans appreciate him for the same reason his detractors cry foul. You pretty much always know what a Christopher Durang comedy is going to be about before you see it, or can at least guess what the major threads woven through it will be. From The Marriage of Bette and Boo to Sex and Longing to his atypical, monologue-driven Laughing Wild, we are served characters who cannot communicate beyond a one-track mission to get their compulsive needs met right now; who have come to define themselves almost exclusively by their neuroses; who have been tied into knots by a religious (usually Roman Catholic) upbringing; and who, for the most part, can't seem to choose which brand of loneliness they desire -- the single life spent daydreaming of absurd romantic bliss, or the coupled life stuck in a disastrous relationship.

There seems to be little room for maneuver by Durang's grown-ups between these last two extremes; their spiritual and emotional imprisonment is preordained, which can lead Durang's more uncharitable critics to suggest -- especially in light of the playwright's painfully honest interviews about his angry mother and alcoholic father -- that he's been paddling circles so long in the same duck pond of dysfunction, all the water's drained out.

Mark Shum, Ambre Low, and Terry Dobson make strange bedfellows in Theatre Three's intermittently funny staging of Christopher Durang's most famous play.
Mark Shum, Ambre Low, and Terry Dobson make strange bedfellows in Theatre Three's intermittently funny staging of Christopher Durang's most famous play.

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Through August 29

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You can't help but feel you ought to spray your own shoes down after watching Beyond Therapy, perhaps Christopher Durang's most famous two-act play given a revival by Theatre Three for the opening of its '99-'00 season. The sludgy current of undigested dysfunctionalism practically demands the vendors sell rain rubbers in the lobby during intermission. But in this case, I skew the blame less toward the playwright's archetypal script about the paranoid, fractious courtship between two adult professionals and more toward director Thurman Moss, who has encouraged his actors to pump their characters' already bizarre behavior full of distractingly broad, self-conscious energy. The result is pasty lumps of choleric one-liners folded into the acidic broth of the script, which works better consumed in little sips rather than being poured, steaming, into the ticketbuyer's lap. You'll laugh here and there, but those moments take you by surprise, and they feel like reprieves, merciful pauses for unexpectedly subtle observations.

Peruse essays by and interviews with Christopher Durang, and he often prefaces discussions of his plays with caveats like "If done right..." and "...assuming you have the right balance." He rarely elaborates, but my guess would be that Durang's hairpin turns around the same relationships in one play -- the same pair of lovers can seem at once hopeful, pathetic, damaged, and cleansingly honest in their connection -- require the actors to follow the curve signs in the script and not let themselves get intoxicated by the speedy swerves.

Theatre Three's Beyond Therapy is too full of giddiness to communicate Durang's fatalistic sense of humor. There's nary a whiff of the authentic fear and sadness that make Durang's best plays a catharsis for individuals who can't wash the childhood voices of condemnation out of their adult ears. The results are a defanged approximation of an American farceur whose incisors have, granted, already begun to wear down from gnawing the same bone almost since birth.

Beyond Therapy takes us through two meetings by magazine writers, both arranged through a personal ad. Bruce (Terry Dobson) is a weepy bisexual man who wants to expand his romantic horizons with Prudence (Ambre Low), a frosty, bespectacled woman who's hyperjudgmental of everyone around her, especially potential romantic partners. Bruce had trouble piercing Prudence's defenses, perhaps because he still wants to keep one foot in the common-law bed of Bob (Mark Shum), his temperamental, needy male lover. When these negotiations hit a shouted stalemate, into the fray are dragged both Bruce's selfish therapist Charlotte (Sharon Bunn), whose tendency to forget important nouns like "patient" (she usually substitutes "porpoise") imply a serious neurological disorder; and Stuart, (Tom Lenaghen), a predatory, fake-leather jacket wearing psychologist constantly trying to coax Prudence back into the sack.

When everyone in a comedy is screwed-up to this degree, you have to either provide counterpoint and contrast (if only to reveal that stability may itself be an aberration in an aberrant world) or you need to nuance the proceedings -- highlight the moments of unintentional wisdom and clarity that many of Durang's adults are programmed to express amidst the gush of irrational muck they manufacture.

Theatre Three's Beyond Therapy is too much of a garish blur of pathological tics and mishaps, with the actors seemingly co-dependent on the showiest facets of their roles. Sharon Bunn and Tom Lenaghen are hardworking but generic sideshow head cases hiding behind their therapeutic accreditation; Terry Dobson is just plain generic. Although he earns a couple of big laughs ("I hope I'm not too macho for you," he tells Prudence early on), I'm not sure that Mr. Dobson has the onstage authority to carry this large and pivotal role.

Ambre Low as Prudence and Mark Shum as Bob aren't necessarily any less manic and conspicuous than the other performers, but they do register just the barest aftertaste of pathos. Bob, threatened by Prudence, who is herself threatened by the relationship between Bob and Bruce, endorses lesbianism as a cure for Prudence's ills, and when she seems at one point to take him up on it, Shum, who frets with flourishes but doesn't descend into mincing and prancing, rises from his chair and glows like a firecracker. Prudence recounts her own lech for Cary Grant, but admits that the recollections of Grant's widow Dyan Cannon suggest he was a less-than-perfect husband. "If there's no point marrying Cary Grant," she wonders with building agitation, "then what's the point of getting married at all?" The last clause is uttered as a scream that escapes by accident, and it offers a nice purge for Low's trembly, fenced-in Prudence.

In an essay for Nerve magazine, Durang expresses some wonderment at the critical rejection of his 1996 three-act Lincoln Center production Sex and Longing. He decided that he hadn't fleshed out the "longing" part of the title, simply because the very sound of that word spoken evoked its meaning inside of him -- a sad and inexplicable yearning. He assumed audiences felt similarly. In the weakest moments of Durang's career, you can't help but think he assumes too much recognition (and identification) on the part of theatergoers to his benighted neurotics -- what he sees as an exaggerated but accurate depiction of the distorted human condition must be finessed a bit for those who think that his view is what's distorted. Theatre Three and Thurman Moss calculate laughter into their comic equation for Beyond Therapy without looking at the main variable -- namely, that audiences might find this a more satisfying night of theater if they were allowed to approach the onstage foibles with a lot less actorly interference.

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