Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Two Unusual Bettys
We spent the weekend with the two Bettys. One was the raunchy and funny play Betty's Summer Vacation and the other a wild and fun punk rock group called BETTY.
The west coast premier of Christopher Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation is at the Actors Theatre of San Francisco. The original Off Broadway show was the winner of three 1999 Obie awards and a Drama Desk Nomination for Outstanding New Play. Christopher Durang is not for the average theater attendee who likes the middle ground, like Neil Simon comedies. Mr. Durang is an "in your face" playwright and he wants to shock your moral sensitivity. He succeeds in this comedy.
I must admit I am not a big Durangs fan. I really never cared for Sister Mary Ignatius or his last Broadway play, Beyond Therapy. I have found him to be completely over the top to the point where he becomes ridiculous. This play is no exception. However, there is a method to his madness in this play and that is that the American television audience is jaded from programs like "The Waltons" or "Touch by an Angel." The playwright contends that many Americans love watching "The Jerry Springer Show" and "Court TV" when there is a sexual connotation. To illustrate this point there are three people hidden up in the ceiling, laughing and commenting on the actors below. They shout "Entertain us! Soothe us!" as if they are watching a TV sitcom.
Betty's Summer Vacation is meant to be preposterous and it borders on being imbecilic. The play is set in a vacation cottage divided for summer rental shares. The place is populated with the strangest assortment of vacationers. In addition to Betty, there is Betty's friend Trudy who can't stop talking. The mother who owns the cottage is an alcoholic who just loves to chase men of all kinds. She also becomes a tenant in her own cottage. There is also immature precious Keith who is a mass murderer and likes to cut up the body parts of his victims. Also in this weird group is Buck, a surfer dude who needs sex at least 10 times a day. His favorite activity is carrying a photo album of candid shots of his favorite organ to share as a "turn on" for the ladies. There is also Mr. Vanislaw who is a flasher and rapist and the invited dinner guest of the mother. He wears nothing but an old raincoat and keeps flashing the actors throughout his short stay.
The play contains all of the things that make a Durang comedy: exhibitionism, rape, alcoholism, decapitation, nymphomania and the disembodied voices from above the stage. If this does not shock the average audience, nothing will. The premise is clever since we are watching a pretty predictably crude and excessive parody of a television situation comedy. We hear the "laugh track" by the three actors above the stage and sometimes they laugh because they are "uncomfortable". Near the end of the play they take over the complete production, demanding more and more. There is even a little of "Court TV" thrown in at the end.
Betty, played by Rachel Klyce, seems to be the only normal person in the group. She just wanted to get away from the city for a little piece and quiet. She plays the role in a lighthearted vain. She is the voice of reason, righteousness and mercy. The motor mouth, nervously garrulous Trudy is played by Actors Theatre regular Jennifer Welch. At first she was a little too nervous, with her teeth chattering constantly, but she calmed down about halfway through the first act. Liz Ryan plays the mother, Mrs. Siezmagraff, and she is a riot. She has a great voice and a great presence as the batty mother. I thought Drew McAuliffe who played the creepy Keith was not alarming enough at the beginning since he had a tendency to cringe. However, he became more believable as the play progressed. Buck is played by a new young actor, Tim Waddell, and he is a hilarious gem. Charles Johnson is good as the flasher.
Even the three voices who fall through the ceiling are standouts: Arthur Calandrelli, Mimi Alain and Andrew Todhunter. The set by Biz Duncan is a typical tacky room in a share rental cottage and the direction by Christian Phillips is crisp and to the point.
Betty's Summer Vacation runs through July 14 at Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter Street in San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Call 415-296-9179 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. Their next production is the West Coast premier of Canadian playwright George F. Walker's Heaven. It opens on August 24th.
On Sunday afternoon we spent a wild and woolly 90 minutes with the eccentric girl rock group BETTY in the World Premier of BETTY Rules "A Guy From Atlantic Wants To Sign Us!" This unusual stage show was workshopped last year at New York's Westbeth Theatre and recently at the New York Public Theatre. This is the actual world premier at the Magic Theatre, the last production of the 2000-01 season.
This really is not a play; it's a cross between live performance and animated story telling by the three girl group. The concert play was written by Alyson Palmer. The other two members of the group are Amy and Elizabeth Ziff. They tell a selective autobiography of the musical group and its rise to cult status. The three enact sketches and pieces of group history interspersed with song and spoken word poetry, weaving the tale of the group's origins, development and growth together.
This group refuses to conform to any one category. The music, written by Alyson Palmer, contains elements of the '40s, big band harmonies, '60s girl groups, '70s disco and '90s club tracks. They are backed by the convincing lead guitarist Tony Salvatore with energetic T. "Mino" Gori on percussion.
Elizabeth, the slim and excitable lesbian of the group, is superior on the guitar. Alyson, a statuesque 6 foot 2 inch African American, is wonderful in the voice department and she lays down great bass lines. Zafig (Amy) is a hilarious comedienne in her sketches as an English landlady, a restaurant owner in Kentucky, and in other scenes. She even plays the cello in one song.
Many of the songs are from BETTY's latest album and they include "Millennium Man", "Jungle Jane", and the melancholy song "Pins and Needles," a tale of surprise and heartbreak. There is also a beautiful a cappella called "Broken" in which each woman talks about the death of her mother. It was very touching.
Michael Greif, who directed Rent, gives a rock energy feel to the concert. The set is tinsel and star strewn with flashing red, orange and blue lights to enhance the effect. You just can't help liking these three women and they have great personal stage presence. As the Wall Street Journal said, "You can bank on BETTY".
BETTY Rules "A Guy From Atlantic Wants To Sign Us!" runs through July 29th at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Tickets are $8 - $30. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. The new 2001-02 season opens with Matthew Wells's Schrodinger's Girlfriend, a world premier involving love and quantum mechanics.