Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Beyond Therapy" at Villanova, published 10-08-2007 in the Main Line Ticket

Long before the films of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, (playwright) Christopher Durang perfected the genre of zany comedies driven by over-the-top characters thrown into otherwise usual/normal situations. Case in point: his hilarious early 80’s comedy “Beyond Therapy,” now receiving a slightly updated, slightly imbalanced production at Villanova University.

Prudence (Rachel Anne Stephan) and Bruce (Carl C. Granieri), two imperfect thirty-something’s, use online personals to look for love and maybe another marriage. She’s a homophobic uptight perfectionist, he’s an overly emotional bisexual living with his lover Bob (Luke Moyer). Both struggle through the relationship on the advice of their respective therapists—Dr. Framingham (Jeffrey S. Paden), a slimeball who bases his advice on trying to sleep with her again, and Charlotte Wallace (Amy Walton), who absentmindedly occupies the session with her own problems. Durang’s approach echoes through Wallace’s advice: “If you take psychological suffering in the right frame of mind, you can find humor in it.”

Dina Amin’s direction attempts to capitalize on the topical humor by updating the script (though not enough—it still feels like a period piece), but veers wildly between comedy that’s neither consistently frantic and over-the-top or consistently straightforward enough. Some lapses in timing further tarnish the production, particularly the stilted ending, which rather than giving one last explosion of absurdity or tapering off the play’s comedic high, falls apart entirely. Her best choice of the night: writing in a cafĂ© singer for the adorably corny, vocally talented Janet McWilliams.

Some of the production’s imbalance lies in the cast, as only Walton’s blisteringly funny performance truly understands her part (even though in this production, her apt playing seems almost out of place). Granieri’s emotional dexterity produces one laugh after another, and finds a fitting compliment in Moyer’s pouting and ridiculously straightforward portrayal. By contrast, Stephan, whose character is fraught with indecision and constantly frazzled, plays her part too confidently. Whenever she declares, “I’m going,” I expected her to do anything but stay put. Meanwhile, Paden’s womanizer is never ridiculous or sleazy enough to effect the humor of his role.

While not the laugh riot Durang intended, the production nonetheless illustrates both the absurdity of imperfect professionals helping their imperfect clients, and Durang’s commentary on the silliness built into every relationship. If you’re longing for a comedy that’s delightfully off-kilter, or that nostalgically pokes fun at an era when patients solved their problems by lying on couches rather than popping pills, Villanova’s production will prove quite therapeutic.

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