Shrink Rapt

The revival of a Christopher Durang play can send you back to dating hell, 1980s style

Having your share of woes in the dating wars? Consider yourself lucky you're not one of the characters in Beyond Therapy, the scathing hilarious comedy receiving a stylish revival at Palm Beach Dramaworks. The New York hit from the 1980s takes aim at an array of contemporary targets, among them psychotherapy, urban intellectuals, and, mostly, the horrors of the single life. Therapy centers on one single New Yorker, Prudence, a depressive magazine editor in her late 30s who hears her biological clock ticking louder and hopes to jump-start her moribund love life by answering a personals ad. At a restaurant, she meets Bruce, a handsome 40-something with boundless optimism, an eagerness to get married, and a live-in boyfriend named Bob. Bruce, who teeters between manic glee and bouts of sobbing, is certain everything will work out great and wants to marry Prudence before the waiter arrives to take their order (as in many a restaurant, this is not as short a time as one might initially assume).

But this isn't the hoped-for romance that Prudence had in mind, so she bolts back to visit her psychotherapist, Stuart, a bullying misogynist with a proclivity for sleeping with his patients, Prudence included. No help there. Meanwhile, Bruce pours his heart out to his therapist, Charlotte, a bubbly whacko who's never without her sock puppet, Snoopy. Charlotte encourages Bruce to try again with a new ad she writes for him. Bruce books another blind date assignation at the restaurant, and wouldn'tcha know? Prudence shows up again, back in dating hell.

Playwright Christopher Durang is a gifted stylist and satirist whose pungent plays, including Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Baby with the Bathwater, demonstrate a keen eye for the foibles of yuppiedom, especially the New York variety. When it premiered, Beyond Therapy created quite a stir with its frank discussion of gay and bisexual love and the singles scene. The play doesn't have the same shock effect it had then, and much of the humor comes from '70s and '80s references ("I want to be a lesbian and move in with Kate Millett") that just don't work today. Still, Therapy's manic cartoonish characters hold up well, and the script is still a funny critique of neurotic singles and the therapists who prey upon them, especially when these weirdo shrinks crank up the psychobabble to daze and confuse their patients.

Nancy Magathan and Michael Collins: in search of connubial nirvana
Nancy Magathan and Michael Collins: in search of connubial nirvana

Now as then, Durang's comedies take a lot of finesse to pull off. Beyond Therapy is a kind of theatrical balloon, light and airy but not easily kept aloft. The writing tends toward clever one-liners and comedic riffs, but the plot line meanders, and some scene constructions seem far less smart than the dialogue. This puts a significant burden on a production's staging and performances to maintain pace and rhythm when the script fails to do so.

In this, director William Hayes and his talented cast fares well. The company has a firm fix on Durang's stylistic requirements, which oscillate between satire and farce. Another essential quality, timing, seems a bit more elusive, as the cast doesn't quite click all the time and some sequences sag. Still, the production is chock full of inspired individual efforts. Teresa Brame delivers a wry, painfully funny performance as sad-sack Prudence, whose romantic torment sends her pinballing from one horrible situation to the next. She's well-matched with Michael Collins' giddy confused Bruce, an inspired comedic creation that is simultaneously charming softie and romantic nightmare. The cast also features Nancy Magathan's hilarious turn as Bruce's borderline insane therapist Charlotte, Michael St. Pierre as Prudence's equally warped shrink Stuart, and John Carlile as Bruce's sulking lover Bob, the sanest banana in this bunch.

Hayes' direction is crisp and effective, though he hasn't quite found a way to compensate for some of the play's weak scene endings and lack of narrative drive. Hayes is also a talented scenic designer, serving up a casually elegant unit set that suits the play's style and setting. Costume designer Pam Kent has some satiric fun of her own, especially with Charlotte's get-ups -- a skirt with a pattern of broken hearts in one scene, a horribly lurid floral print dress in another. The golden-oldies score adds a bouncy musical dimension to the 1980s feel.

The production, which kicks off Dramaworks' new season, also marks the debut of the company's spiffy new theater on Banyan Boulevard, quite a step up from its cramped old digs on Clematis Street -- and just in time. As more and more theatergoers have discovered this little gem of a company, the Clematis space just couldn't hold them all. The new theater space offers more seats and elbow room, a larger stage area, and better backstage facilities, and its easy-access location should help accelerate the company's growing audience base. With each production, Palm Beach Dramaworks continues to develop and mature as a permanent fixture on the Palm Beach County arts scene. If you have not done so yet, now may be the time to check out what's in the 'works.

 
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