Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2008

Ah, the American mental health system. My most recent brush with it entailed a therapist who demanded that I “get something” out of therapy, not just “talk about things.” Since I didn’t get what it was I was supposed to be getting, and failed to see how talk therapy worked without talking, I gave up on the whole endeavor.

It is exactly this kind of lunacy masquerading as “health care” that Christopher Durang sends up in his 1981 dark comedy Beyond Therapy, currently being given an hilarious and poignant production on the Nikos Stage at the WTF. Director Alex Timbers has wisely staged the play in the time in which it was written – before psychopharamceuticals, cell phones, and AIDS.

Let’s take a short trip down memory lane to 1981: It was the year I was married, and so were Prince Charles and Lady Di. No one had a personal computer in their home and there was no internet and no e-mail. Anwar Sadat was assassinated, and attempts were made on President Ronald Regan and Pope John Paul II. Eli Manning, Beyoncé Knowles, Britney Spears, and Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold were born. Bob Marley, William Saroyan, Harry Chapin and Natalie Wood died. Cats opened in London. Pac-Man and MTV were the hot new things. Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture (and a whip-toting archaeologist named Indiana Jones made his debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Christopher Cross swept the Grammys.

If you look at that list, you will see that the biggest changes have occurred in the way people communicate – cell phones, e-mail, internet – and Beyond Therapy is about our ongoing inability to connect. We weren’t communicating then and we’re still not communicating now, despite unprecedented access to each other’s thoughts and ideas.

Bruce (Darren Goldstein) and Prudence (Katie Finneran) meet for a blind date at a New York restaurant after she answers his personal ad in the newspaper. They are attractive, intelligent, 30-somethings – she writes for People magazine and he’s a lawyer – looking for love and commitment, which they never find, thanks in large part to the inane advice they receive from their respective therapists – Mrs. Charlotte Wallace (Kate Burton,) a psychologist, and Dr. Stuart Framingham (Darrell Hammond,) a psychiatrist.

Bruce and Prudence are horrible mismatched. She prefers the company of her cats and he’s living with a gay man named Bob Lansky (Matt McGrath) who is not at all ready to relinquish, or even share, Bruce’s affections.

Bruce, Prudence, Bob, Mrs. Wallace and Dr. Framingham all wind up at that same restaurant where Bruce and Prudence first met for a scene of gun-toting, water-throwing, mousse-eating mayhem. Andrew (Bryce Pinkham,) the waiter, who turns out to be another patient of Mrs. Wallace, makes off with Bob, Dr. Framingham and Mrs. Wallace take off to a disco, and Bruce and Prudence are left much where they started. Alone together.

This is both a very silly and a very serious play. It makes no sense and all the sense in the world. You laugh at the outrageous extravagances because you know how very close to the truth they are.

While Finneran and Goldstein are the leads and Bruce and Prudence’s stories are central to the play, Burton decidedly steals the show with a buoyant and relentlessly cheerful performance in what is undoubtedly one of the great comedic roles for a woman in the English theatre.

While Charlotte’s married names are Wallace (all of her husbands have shared the same surname) I would not be surprised to learn her maiden name was Malaprop. She is often suddenly completely unable to come up with the appropriate word, causing her to scroll through an ever sillier list of alliterative choices. A search for the word “therapist” generates thermidor, thorazine, thermometer, Thackery, thespian, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, and Fatatateeta.

I was predisposed to like whatever Hammond did on stage because I have always enjoyed him on Saturday Night Live but I found myself ultimately disappointed by his portrayal of the ultra-macho, overcompensating Dr. Framingham. I found his characterization flat (or was he just doing his Al Gore impression throughout?) and he noticeably went up on a couple of lines, making me question his interest in the proceedings at hand.

McGrath was spot on as Bob, one of the saner characters in this hysterical melodrama. Bob knows that he is gay, he knows that he wants a life with Bruce, and Prudence is an obvious obstacle. In hindsight, Bob was a very progressive creation of Durang’s at a time when open homosexuality was still a dangerous and provocative idea.

Bruce and Prudence really don’t know what they want (Bruce imagines them settling in Connecticut with Bob living over the garage) and therefore they can’t, and don’t, get it. Finneran and Goldstein turn in very funny and appealing performances in difficult roles. Finneran’s descent into true madness towards the end is pitch perfect and truly side-splitting.

Pinkham goes from bland to terrifying in short order and makes the most of his brief time on stage.

Timbers and his design crew find many subtle, and not so subtle, ways to remind us that it is 1981. Music of the era blares whenever the action on stage stops, thanks to Fitz Patton’s sound design. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter floods Walt Spangler’s shades-of-gray sets with shafts of brilliant color, primarily strong pinks and blues, while Emily Rebholz provides nicely restrained but historically accurate costumes. The visual whole is terrific, but I was particularly enamored of Spangler’s set, which involved intersecting chrome and glass rhomboids on a revolving base, forming, theoretically, four playing areas in the angles, but as the ensemble of Jack Berenholtz, Travis Blumer, Stacey Bone, and Kerry Malloy spin it about at every scene change, the possibilities seem infinite. It is possible for the cast to vanish into and pop out of this structure in interesting ways, as well as to approach it from the vast void that surrounds it. I believe a slight thrust has been built on the Nikos Stage for this production, but it is mostly Spangler’s deft and economic use of space that makes the playing area seem larger.

This is not a show for small children. The language is rough and there is frank discussion of adult sexuality. Also I am not sure children are prepared (Are any of us?) to see doctors presented as such flawed and potentially harmful individuals.

I received an e-mail from a friend the other week with statistics from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proving that you are 9,000 times more likely to die due to doctor’s error than from a gunshot and pointing out that while not everyone owns a gun, most people have at least one doctor. Then you go see a play like this, which contains twice as many therapists as guns, and you think, “Hmmmm..."

Beyond Therapy runs through June 22 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is rated R - 17 and older only, please. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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