A zany production of Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy
The Shelton Theatre is currently presenting Christopher Durang’s outrageous 1981 farce Beyond Therapy. Some critics have considered the multi-talented playwright and actor the funniest playwright alive today. Certainly, this dramatist is an acquired taste. Durang has been vilified and praised by audiences everywhere since writing over 1000 one act plays and 40 full length quirky, cutting-edge comedies. His plays have been presented in all parts of the world by both professional and community theatres.
Many critics and playwrights have said that Christopher Durang is a talented artist of tasteless, lowbrow humor, but he makes us laugh. I am inclined to go along with that statement, since I sometimes cringe at the insane actions of his characters. No wonder he has been called the literary Jack the Ripper. Beyond Therapy is no exception; this play is one of Durang’s most popular and frequently performed pieces - it is also one of his sunnier comedies.
Beyond Therapy opened Off Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre on January 1, 1981. This was the first time I experienced Durang's work. He certainly shook up the audience with his presentation of what happens when two mismatched people rely on a professional therapist to find the ideal fulfilling relationship in a neurotic world. Today it seems very old hat, but it was cutting edge then. A young Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Collins were the couple in that production. Rex Reed of the New York Daily News said “One of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen.” The dark comedy proved so popular it moved to the Walter Kerr Theatre with John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest taking over the roles. Robert Altman made a film of the travesty for New World in 1987 with Glenda Jackson, Jeff Goldblum and Julie Hagerty. It tanked very early in the release and is rarely seen on television today.
Durang has set the tone for a witty and brilliant play that is sometimes caustic about the disaffected generation of the early ’80s. Even though this is a farce, there are serious concerns beneath the surface. As Dan Sullivan in the Los Angeles Times remarked, “Durang is a serious young writer who can’t help thinking comically. He is wickedly funny, terribly slanted and essentially true.”
Durang's serious comedy work is about Prudence (Lisa Lennox) and Bruce (Chris Zezza), who are deep into therapy, each hoping to find a lasting relationship. Their therapists recommend putting a personal ad in the paper for a mate. Bruce and Prudence meet in a restaurant and the date is a disaster. Bruce has a male lover and declares he is bi-sexually inclined (this created quite a stir in the 1981, since the word was slightly benign). Bruce also has a tendency to cry a lot and he talks about a famous hetero sex club that was popular in New York in the early ’80s called “Plato's Retreat.” Prudence is not sure about this guy and they end up throwing water in each other's face.
They return to their respective psychiatrists to tell of the ruinous consequences of the meeting. Prudence's therapist, Dr. Framingham (Louis Graham), is a macho pig who once seduced her and keeps talking about his sexual prowess; however, she says he is not good in bed since he suffers from premature ejaculation. Bruce’s therapist, Charlotte Wallace (Maureen Williams), needs some mental work herself, since she has trouble thinking of simple words like “patient” (she sputters out “porpoise, pompous, pom-pom” before getting it right). She also talks through the Snoopy doll that is always at her side and occasionally says “ruff, ruff, ruff.”
Ms. Wallace suggests a revised personal ad and guess who answers the ad? That’s right, Prudence. They overcome their initial loathing and begin to like each other until the male lover Bob (Matt Martinez) enters the picture. The whole shambles ends up in a mad restaurant scene where screaming and shootings take place, and Bruce and Prudence almost get together, humming “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Jean Shelton is well known in San Francisco where she has been teaching and encouraging actors for the past 50 years. She started her acting career in New York in 1947 where she married Wendell Phillips, a Broadway actor and director who was associated with Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and Tennessee Williams. Shelton moved to San Francisco in 1960 and opened her own acting school and theatre on Sutter Street. As Director, Shelton has assembled some of her own students to play the roles of the kooky characters of Beyond Therapy. Several of the actors go completely over the top in some scenes. This is especially true when they scream their lungs out in this small theater. Maureen Williams, as the therapist, is too chaotic in the first act, particularly when she is trying to find the right word to say. However, she gets control of the character in the second act. Louis Graham also goes over the top as the macho psychiatrist. However, this is how Durang likes his characters to act. There are sudden explosions followed by a relief that is most agreeable.
Lisa Lennox and Chris Zezza are delightful as the romantic couple. They have good chemistry together. Ms. Lennox is a striking actress who is completely professional with an excellent theatre voice. Her timing is impeccable. Zezza gives a beautiful portrayal of a confused male, underplaying the roles marvelously. Matt Martinez, as the male lover Bob, captures the essence of the frustrated and bitchy gay character. However, you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Jim Vernon has a walk-on as a waiter but does not seem to be acting, just reciting the lines.
On opening night, Lennox and Zezza did a little adlibbing by updating the ’80s play, mentioning Scott Peterson and Brad Pitt. However, they have kept in the ’80s feel with the mention of “Plato’s Retreat” and the old television series “Three’s Company.” As the playwright does not like to update this play, since it reflects the early ’80s, the modern references are totally unnecessary.
Beyond Therapy is playing at the Shelton Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco through January 29. For tickets call 415-433-1226 or visit www.sheltontheater.com.