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Beyond Therapy

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Mark Alhadeff and Liv Rooth
Photo by Marielle Solan.

The swift closing —after only 11 previews and 21 performances —of Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy on Broadway in 1982 was a great disappointment to me. Perhaps some critics and the mainstream audience hadn't yet grown to fully appreciate the author's own special brand of humor; indeed, Durang didn't achieve success on Broadway until Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won him the Tony Award for Best Play last year.

But I adored the '82 production, which boasted a cast led by John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest, and I've always thought the title perfect for the subject matter: Early-middle-aged New Yorkers Bruce and Prudence are trying to find themselves through therapy even as they're looking for love via personal ads in newspapers. (Remember those?) To say that their first date, at a restaurant called Restaurant, does not turn out well would be the understatement of several centuries; their conversation really begins to go awry when Bruce casually mentions his male lover, Bob, and it's all downhill from there.

Following that hilarious debacle, we're treated to outlandish scenes of these two in "therapy." Bruce's shrink, Charlotte Wallace, is a loon who's prone to weird word substitutions ("dirigible" for "secretary" is one example) and who uses a plush toy Snoopy to bark her approval, while it turns out that Dr. Stuart Framingham's treatment of Prudence has included his having sex with her. One later scene filled with hilarity takes place in Bruce and Bob's apartment, and finally, everyone comes together at Restaurant, along with a waiter who makes an extremely belated appearance.

All of this is enlivened by highly amusing references to authors from Kierkegaard to Sondheim, films from Some Like It Hot to Sunday, Bloody Sunday to The Towering Inferno, and many other cultural icons and landmarks. Much of the comedy in the play is so fresh and outlandish that it still seems so more than 30 years after the Broadway premiere -- as when, during a phone conversation between Bruce, Bob, and Bob's mother, we're made to understand that the latter shuts out anything she doesn't want to hear by singing selections from the musical theater canon. (She apparently has a particular fondness for Sondheim.)

There are some darker moments in the play, though none of them lasts very long. Gunshots are fired in Act II, so theatergoers who are jittery about such things should be prepared. The highly toxic "c" word is dropped at another point, and some may perceive this as a rare instance of Durang having gone a bit too far.

An underappreciated gem, Beyond Therapy is currently being revived by TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) in a typically solid production that earns a fair amount of laughs, yet still misses the target of Durang's unique comic sensibility by a rather wide margin. In the role of Bruce, Mark Alhadeff comes across as a normal, attractive, youngish guy indicating the character's neuroses rather than living them. Liv Rooth, a beautiful actress who bears a striking resemblance to the young Kelly Ripa, is considerably more successful as Prudence, but even she misses much of the character's humor, which comes largely from her reactions to the evident insanity of the others.

As for the therapists, Cynthia Darlow is just right for Charlotte in terms of vocal and physical type, but her performance is hampered by some imperfect timing. Karl Kenzler offers a blunt portrayal of Stuart; he's obviously smarmy from the first moment we see him, rather than achieving the comedy of incongruity by appearing at first to be a respectable medical professional and then proving otherwise. (His costuming doesn't help.) Jeffrey C. Hawkins is sweet but rather bland as Bob. The most felicitous piece of casting is Michael Schantz, whose playing of the waiter Andrew as a deadpan hunk seems wonderfully right although very different from the performance of David Hyde Pierce, who made his Broadway debut in this role in the 1982 production.

TACT's co-artistic and executive director, Scott Alan Evans, has done excellent work in helming past shows for the company, but he doesn't really seem to "get" Durang, and/or he has been unable to help the actors zero in on the tricky style of comedy required. Even the choice of Bruce Springsteen's hard-rocking song "Hungry Heart" as music played before the show begins and at the end doesn't jibe with the tone of the piece. This production is good enough to give the audience a sense of how truly hilarious Beyond Therapy is without quite hitting the comic bulls-eye.

Beyond Therapy
Through April 19
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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