A Mad Mad Mad Cat World
"Hell is other people," Jean Paul Sartre once opined. To Christopher Durang, hell is psycho roommates screwing up your seaside holiday. That's the freakish situation in Betty's Summer Vacation, Durang's comedy of menace that is receiving a first-rate staging from Miami's Mad Cat Theatre Company. Durang's thin script has been overpraised (it won an Obie, among several other awards), but the production is so fiery and funny that most Mad Cat fans won't care.
Betty is really two plays in one. The first is a Grand Guignol of sex, jokes, and violence. A gal from Manhattan, Betty (Ivonne Azurdia in a winsome performance), arrives at a summer cottage on the Long Island shore, where she will spend time with other young singles sharing the house. Things start off badly owing to Betty's motor-mouth pal Trudy (Aubrey Shavonn), a annoyingly loud sad sack who can't stop droning. But Trudy is really nothing to Betty's new acquaintances. The landlady, Mrs. Siezmagraff (Lorena Diaz), who happens to be Trudy's mother, is a drunken wacko who's in denial about her husband's repeated abuse of their daughter. A beer-for-breakfast surfer dude, Buck (Gregg Weiner), eagerly seeks sex, consensual or otherwise, from every female he meets. A derelict flasher in a raincoat (George Schiavone) roams the house, while Keith (Jason Allen), another renter, is a quiet, coiled freak who may or may not be a serial killer. With this crew around, Betty's prospects for a happy holiday look dim indeed.
Meanwhile Durang's caustic, deliberately repulsive tale has a second agenda -- a cultural critique of modern entertainment. As Betty's vacation turns into a bad (but funny) trip, it is accompanied by a laugh track of unseen Voices. The three Voices laugh at the jokes, then laugh at things that aren't jokes. When Betty and the other characters begin to notice this, the Voices begin to talk back to the characters, then start making demands, and finally show up to take over the story (Samara Siskind is particularly creepy as one of the thrill-seeking trio). Durang's conceit is that the Voices are the thoughts of the audience watching the play, whose insatiable appetite for entertainment begins to dictate what should happen next. As the story degenerates into rape, murder, beheading, and genital mutilation, the Voices hungrily demand more.
Betty is aiming for a bitter indictment of popular culture, especially television, satirizing (if such a thing is still possible) TV talk and reality shows with their gut-spilling emotional tirades. It's an important premise but not an original one, and like Durang's best plays ( Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor's Nightmare), could have been delivered and done with a one-acter. Instead this play prattles on far too long for its own good, becoming nearly as tedious and as vapid as the cultural wasteland it attacks.
Like much of Durang's work, this is a comedy of derision, a witty but essentially one-note satire that takes cheap and easy aim at other people, in this case those mindless and morally deficient unsophisticates who watch television.
Fortunately the Mad Catters bring their signature company style -- a hip, humanizing element and a pedal-to-the-metal commitment -- that makes up for the script's deficiencies. Paul Tei's deft staging features a broadly comedic style and terrific pacing. His production support is topnotch, with wacky, inventive costuming from Karelle Levy and equally wild lighting from Travis Neff. Same goes for Natan Samuels's sound design, borrowing heavily from classic horror flicks and galumphing, intentionally awful pop tunes from the Sixties. The cast is excellent across the board, though Lorena Diaz is a standout in an over-the-top performance as Mrs. Siezmagraff, the mother from hell.
Betty's Summer Vacation is challenging theater, a strange blend of flash and failure that is sure to meet with mixed audience response. The Mad Catters get my respect for taking on such risky material, but what really gets my attention isn't the quality of this production -- the company has been working at a consistently high level for some time. Instead I keep comparing this script with those from Mad Cat's resident writers. I don't begrudge Betty for whatever awards New Yorkers want to bestow on it, but in my opinion, the Mad Cat's resident writers regularly produce better plays than this. Were this company in a major media market, it would be receiving national, not local, attention.
On that note, readers are advised that last season's Mad Cat hit Tin Box Boomerang will be restaged this fall at the Hollywood Playhouse. My hat is off to the playhouse's new artistic director, John Rodaz, for pursuing this kind of cross-company cooperation. Now audiences in Broward and northward will have a chance to sample Mad Cat's unique, spicy style of theater.
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