Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang. Directed by Alex Timbers.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Donít go - they have a salad bar here."
Imagine, if you can, the blind date from Hell, then magnify it by unlucky thirteen, divide it by five and send the result to a gestalt therapist for help and there you have the premise of Christopher Durangís 1981 comic melodrama, "Beyond Therapy." Then imagine it on the Williamstown Theaterís Nikos Stage 27 years later, directed by a talent with an eye for crazy humor, and played by a cast of serious actors cutting loose on the whole gestalt concept. The result is what youíll find opening the 2008 season at the northern edge of Berkshire County.
The story, in brief: Bruce, an active bisexual, under the guidance of his therapist, Mrs. Wallace who cannot remember simple words or even her patientís identity, places a personals ad for a woman. He meets Prudence, a total failure at human relationships who has been having an affair with her therapist, Dr. Framingham, as a result of that ad. The two of them do not exactly hit it off. Everything he does or says offends her; everything she does or says turns him into a waterworks manufacturer. End of story. Or is it?
Something keeps bringing these two hapless individuals together and neither Bruceís live-in boyfriend Bob, nor Bobís "Auntie Mame" mama, can affect this bizarre romance. But thereís always someone waiting in the wings, or at the table, and this play has a waiter all its own.
Set in New York City in the therapy driven 1980s, this production is blessed with a company that acts the lines Durang wrote and interprets them in a serious enough fashion to let each absurdity shine through with clarity.
Darren Goldstein is a most sincere actor giving a most sincere performance. He wants Prudence, and us, to believe every word he says and he tells it like it is...or like it could be...or should be...or might be if he ever acted on his own convictions. Goldstein is a killer when it comes to the deeper, buried humor in this play. As Bruce he is the most convincing amor anyone could wish for, until someone asks him a real question. Goldstein is seemingly instinctively funny. There is no visible effort in his work here and he provides a refreshing lack of technique through is excellent reading of the role.
As his paramour in spite of herself, Katie Finneran takes the hysteria out of hysterical. She is funny to begin with and funnier when she loses control of herself. Her Prudence is anything but. She is a woman with a mission to find a mission and her mission is built on sandstone at best. The more she loses control of her thin-lipped smile the more endearingly silly she becomes. The actress here disappears into the role and her beauty slips away with her performance. The more desirable she is for Bruce, the less desirable she is for us. Finneran does this wonderfully, without a slip in her work and when she becomes open to impulse her inner beauty swamps the stage with heat.
Bob, the third angle in this triad relationship, as played by Matt McGrath is almost too good. He does 80s "gay" with a vengeance, never offensive and never wrong either. His fussiness and his fuming are right in line with the period of the play. He is huffy. He is infuriating. He is completely unattractive and totally appealing. McGrath makes more of the character than the playwright would allow, I think, but his portrayal lends credence to the storyline.
Darrell Hammond is Prudenceís paramour-therapist, Dr. Stuart Framingham. Even Stuartís suit shrieks mania. His sense of love-making, complete with planned premature ejaculations, is highlighted by Hammondís physical screams of rage. If there is a character to despise in this play, Framingham is that character. Hammond gives us plenty of opportunity to hiss and boo if we want, and with this impossible dreamer, that is what we want.
Bryce Pinkham is Andrew, yet another demi-psychotic patient whose appearance, late in the show, hammers a final nail into the coffin of analysis.
Kate Burton, always a welcome dramatic figure in this region, plays the one voice of reason, Mrs. Charlotte Wallace, a psychotherapist with an affection for her Snoopy Dog doll, a difficulty with certain words - such as secretary which invariably comes out as "dirigible" and a filing cabinet that is beyond therapy. Burtonís comic timing is impeccable. Her delivery of malaprop lines accompanied by some of the classiest physical comedy on the stage today makes her performance one of her most memorable. Forget Hedda Gabler and Miss Moffatt and even Alzheimerish Dr. Gray on television, Burton was created for the sort of deeply centered light comedy roles such as this one. Her role is a supporting one yet she supports herself right into the spotlight center stage here. As good as the rest of her companions are, and they are all wonderful, hers is the performance people will talk about. She is worth the price of the ticket and if Durang rewrote the play as a monologue the work would be hers and hers alone and still be just as funny and adorable.
Timbers has done a wonderful job of weaving all these elements together in a brisk hour and forty five minute evening (including intermission). He has a knack for comic timing and simultaneous character development. I never saw an awkward stage picture or an underplayed gesture here. There were no gaps, no extraneous frills, no awkward silences. There was a perfection in the work that is a hallmark of a director who can be in charge and still let his actors do what they do best.
Walt Spanglerís efficient turntable set was well lit by Jeff Croiter and Emily Rebholzís costumes evoked the period beautifully, particularly in the outfits she put onto the two therapists.
With "Beyond Therapy" the Williamstown Theatre Festival is off to a wonderful start in their 54th season. Now they have a criteria which they must be capable of matching and bettering. Good luck to them. Itís not going to be easy.
Darren Goldstein and Katie Finneran; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Darrell Hammond; Photo: Andy Tew
Kate Burton and Snoopy Dog Doll; Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Beyond Therapy plays through June 22 at the Nikos Stage in the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance located at 1000 Main Street in Williamstown, MA. Tickets are $35-$37. For tickets or information call the box office at 413-597-3400.