Bay Street Theatre: Take a Wild Ride with Betty

Posted on 13 July 2011

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By Annette Hinkle

Beware: In this play virtually no subject is off limits. Expect scenes rife with lewd language, excessive sexual references, castration, inappropriate familial relationships and overall disturbing behavior

And that’s just act one.

Christopher Durang’s play “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” Bay Street Theatre’s second offering of the mainstage season, is not your average day at the beach and those looking for light summer theatrical fluff would do well to look elsewhere.

But for theater-goers in the right frame of mind who are willing to suspend moral judgment for the duration, “Betty’s Summer Vacation” is definitely a trip worth taking.

As a playwright, Durang offers strong and compelling commentary on the prurient addiction and voyeuristic tendencies of the American public. He also addresses head on societal cravings for ever increasing and vulgar acts of violence, sex, scandal and confession — ideally witnessed by millions through various media outlets.

Ironically, this production, which is directed aptly by Trip Cullman and acted by a stellar cast, opened the same day a jury delivered its “not-guilty” verdict in the over-publicized Casey Anthony murder trial. Though written in the late ‘90s, before the term “reality TV” was even coined, and long before tweets and Facebook, in this era of phone hacking scandals and randy elected officials with a taste for sharing their personal “effects,” Durang’s script is perhaps more relevant now than it was in those innocent days of slow moving Bronco chases.

Scene one of the play opens with Betty (Heidi Schreck) arriving at her summer share, an airy but modest beach rental (nicely conceived by set designer Walt Spangler) with cheesy shell curtains and partial ocean views. Sorely in need of a vacation, she’s sharing the home with her overly-chatty friend Trudy (Celia Keenan-Bolger) who she hopes will quiet down now that she’s out of the city. That seems unlikely though as Trudy never shuts up and wanders with ease from one non sequitur to another, even doing a well honed impression of a car alarm when she stumbles onto that subject.

Relief from Trudy (if you can call it that) comes in short order, with the arrival of Betty’s other “housemates” — among them the pathologically quiet Keith (Bobby Steggert), a suspected serial killer who carries a mysterious hatbox and holes up in his room for much of the play. Also making an entrance is Mrs. Siezmagraff (Veanne Cox), the home’s owner who announces that a change in plans now requires that she take a room as well. The landlady, it turns out, is Trudy’s mother and their contentious relationship plays out for all as Trudy tells of sexual abuse at the hands of her late father while her mother paints her as a dramatic liar. Taking the last available room is the promiscuous Buck (John Behlmann) the young “buck” who can’t function on fewer than 20 sexual encounters per day and is crude beyond measure.

Complicating share house dynamics, Mrs. Siezmagraff, the aging party girl, soon brings home Mr. Vanislaw (Tom Riis Farrell) a homeless flasher she finds taking pictures in a changing room. Mrs. Siezmagraff has no moral boundaries, terrible judgment (and precious little compassion) so has brought the man home for a little entertainment. But the lecherous Mr. Vanislaw is soon bored by charades as well as his hostess and roams the halls in search of other younger diversions — with dire consequences.

A final “character” in the play is a laugh track that provides commentary on the action throughout. It’s a clever devise that draws audiences in and highlights public appetite for private affairs. In the beginning, the voices (Kate O’Phalen, Jacob Hoffman and Tim Intravia) are subtle and at times can barely be heard over the audience’s own laughter – the two are in sync. But as the action progresses,  the laugh track becomes increasingly vocal, aggressive and finally, even menacing toward the people on stage. It interacts with them and justifies inappropriate responses by describing to the residents moments that are uncomfortable, ironic or just plain boring.

With the exception of the even-keeled Betty, a bastion of sanity in a sea of chaos, Durang has created a cast of characters that embody stereotype in the extreme. Though at times, there may be those who question where this play is ultimately headed, Durang knows what he’s doing here. Bordering on the surreal — particularly in act two — this is a play that, despite the inexplicable, remains linear in its story telling, which keeps it in the realm of the logical — if not the plausible.

Cullman’s cast (particularly the incomparable Veanne Cox who is hysterically callous with an endearingly warped philosophy on life) is finely tuned and the non-stop pace feeds the energy, building to a crescendo where even the most offended audience member will be looking for more. Durang brilliantly plays on the notion of voyeurism in a way in which the audience itself inevitably becomes involved. Yes, it’s all tragic and sick, but we can’t wait to see what comes next.

But like the real public, Durang’s soundtrack is fickle, and it increasingly becomes involved in the lives of the hapless residents of the beach house. By the end, it’s directing …  no, demanding, they give them what it wants to see.

“Betty’s Summer Vacation” is along the lines of edgier productions like “Dinner” and “Romance” that have been well received at Bay Street in recent seasons. But in many ways, this play surpasses those in content by questioning the line of social acceptability and ever widening moral reasoning. What’s funny? What’s not? Flashers and serial killers? Yeah, maybe. Condoned rape of a damaged young woman? Hmmm…that’s a harder sell.

There’s a moment late in the play where Betty removes herself from the fray to pause on the beach and listen to the ocean for the first time since her visit. There’s an odd transference that comes with stepping outside the box, so to speak. Suddenly, we feel as if the characters around her are just that, and are struck by the sense that the whole beach house itself is a pre-ordained social experiment with Betty as the hapless subject. Maybe it’s just a sick, 21st century episode of Candid Camera or business as usual at the “Jersey Shore?”

Or perhaps, the TV inside Betty’s head has finally been turned off and the characters left behind are fading like a darkening screen. Simple figments in the mind of one woman looking to get away from what ails society — as perhaps we all should.

“Betty’s Summer Vacation” runs Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. through July 31. Matinees are offered at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays July 20 and 27 and at 4 p.m. on Saturdays July 16 and 23. Tickets are $65. Call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org to reserve.

Top: Veanne Cox (Mrs. Siezmagraff) and Tom Riis Farrell (Mr. Vanislaw) get cozy on the couch in a scene from “Betty’s Summer Vacation.” Photo by Jerry Lamonica.

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