Watching while the world goes mad
Good performances keep Durang’s trauma-riddled Vacation afloat
Playwright Christopher Durang has never been shy about displaying his obsession with psychological traumas. Or particularly subtle about it, either. That is especially true with this play, Betty’s Summer Vacation, now at the Blue Room Theatre.
Almost every character in this tale of post-modern horror—punctuated with a Greek-chorus-style offstage “laugh track"—is either blinded or made helpless by his or her particular “injury.” At first, these flagrantly undressed wounds are humorous. At first.
Basically, the story follows Betty and her extremely loquacious friend, Trudy, two 20-somethings who seemingly have escaped responsibility for the summer at a four-room cottage in a “nice seaside … community.” They have no reason even to suspect their as-yet-unmet roommates of being anything other than reasonable, relaxation-seeking individuals. Hoo-boy, are they wrong.
In fairly rapid succession, Betty and Trudy meet Keith, who may or may not be a serial killer; landlady Mrs. Siezmagraff, a fun-loving yet particularly insensitive shrew with a special connection to Trudy; fourth roommate Buck, a dense “surfer dude” enslaved to his sexual impulses; and Mrs. Siezmagraff’s “friend” Mr. Vanislaw, a homeless flasher in the requisite dirty raincoat. Complicating things further, mysterious laughter and comments emanate seemingly from nowhere (from “The Nielsons,” as it is revealed later), both at humorous instances and during far grimmer situations.
This last gimmick flashes the vapidity of modern television sit-coms, talk shows, pop psychology, etcetera, etcetera, at the audience. Particularly targeted is the vapidity of those who willing contemplate such horrors, as Baudelaire once put it, within the safety of their armchairs. And, by extension (this is Christopher Durang we’re talking about), this indictment also includes the theater audience!
I think most of us got Durang’s point quickly and well within the first act. And it affected our enjoyment of the rest of the show. For many of us, it was as though a hammer were being banged on our collective forehead over and over and over again. The general feeling was, “OK, we get it. We get it, already! We’re a nation obsessed with television, death, destruction, psychological traumas, compulsions, enforced ignorance and alcoholism. And we want to be entertained with these horrors. We promote them by ignoring the genuine damage they cause.” After a while, it just became tiresome.
The acting is uniformly good. Granted, these characters are comedic shells and not necessarily fully formed; they exist mainly for the writer to make his point. Still, each actor here does a commendable job.
As Betty, Elizabeth Kollings comes off as a bland sit-com heroine initially, and appropriately. But by the play’s end she’s the most rounded character of the lot. As the gabby and severely traumatized Trudy, Betsy Brewer is perfectly cast; she conveys her character’s manic energy well; she talks so much about nothing only because nobody wants to hear what she really has to say. Katheryn McCreary does a superb job as the coarse landlady Mrs. Siezmagraff. Quite contrary to her name, this insensitive harridan registers only opposite reactions when faced with the horrors slowly rumbling around her.
Brian Sampson, Jeremy Votava and Slim Barkowska as Keith, Buck and Mr. Vanislaw, respectively, portray their characters’ quirks and neuroses as well as the writing allows. “The Nielsons” are also effective.
Director Betty Burns does a great job of keeping things moving. The costumes are functional, the set convincing and the lighting and sound unobtrusive.