Williamstown Theater Festival, Nikos Stage
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Alex Timbers
Charlotte – Kate Burton
Prudence – Katie Finneran
Bruce- Darren Goldstein
Stuart – Darrell Hammond
Bob – Matt McGrath
Andrew – Bryce Pinkham
The Williamstown Theatre Festival got off to a comfortable start with quite an entertaining offering by WTF familiars. Playwright-Actor Christopher Durang has appeared in Williamstown in both capacities. Katie Finneran is beginning her second WTF season as Prudence. Director Alex Timbers and Matt McGrath are both in their fourth season, and Kate Burton, of course, is a fixture, now in her 18th season. Beyond that, there is also an element of nostalgia in Beyond Therapy, which was first produced off Broadway in 1981 and on Broadway in a revised version in 1982. Not everybody will realize what a different place the world was back then. Hence the program notes attempt to explain this through a comparison with Sex and the City, which is steeped in the values of the turn of the century, when it started. Even that is beginning to recede into the past. While the waywardness of psychological professionals is as fresh a topic as any (The Guardian reported just today that Britain’s most famous psychiatrist has been convicted of plagiarism and may lose his license.), Durang’s not-so-young man and woman, Bruce and Prudence, would be facing quite different problems today. They’d more likely be complaining about the latest switch in their medication and talking to their therapists and each other about their relationships with their animals, whether dog, cat, bird, or reptile. Beyond Therapy takes us back to the distant days before cell phones, personal computers, e-mail, and Facebook. This was the tail-end of the sexual revolution, just before people began to notice AIDS; the sixties were still in people’s memory, and the seventies weren’t quite over yet; Reagan’s transformation of American society, whatever that was, had not quite made itself felt yet. As for myself, I lived abroad between 1983 and 1985, and on a visit to New York sometime late in the fateful year 1984, I noticed that people were different. Clothes, assumptions, the way people walked on the street—that is, now looking down fixedly onto the pavement—had all changed.
So, for Prudence and Bruce (Can you think of a more ill-matched pair of names?), both in therapy of course, the solution to a happier, more fulfilling life is through a relationship, that is, sex. We hadn’t yet reached the point where the statement, “X is in a relationship,” is assumed to be bad news. Prudence is a perfectly sensible woman, timid and unaware perhaps, and not exceptional in any way, who has made the mistake of continuing her therapy after sleeping with her sex-obsessed male analyst. Bruce is no more exceptional, except for the fact that, having been divorced after being caught in a homosexual liaison, he has followed the consequences and is living with a male partner in a relationship which is beginning to seem limited. His worst problem, other than himself, is that he is too ready to follow the advice of his touchy-feely therapist. Both, Prudence’s creepy lecher, Bob, and Bruce’s addled Charlotte, who can’t make a decision or express herself without her stuffed Snoopy, are strong candidates for the world’s worst therapist. Both are terminally obtuse, even fatuous, but Bob tends to err more because of his limitations in processing professional standards, as he might say; and Charlotte can’t remember anything, down to the identity of her patients, or what she had planned to happen one minute before she changed her mind.
The play belongs very much to its time, which, I suppose, is why the WTF chose it. There are plenty of jokes on subjects a playwright would never touch today, and it is a credit to the skill of Alex Timbers and his cast that it all comes off. His first, basic good decision was to treat the play as a period piece. The rest of the credit goes to excellent timing and skillful acting. But of course, the jokes are good. Christopher Durang is gifted with real wit, and his humor is healthily grounded in character and les moeurs. Bruce and Prudence are perhaps a little too nebbishy to command our full sympathy, but they do evolve a little. At the beginning Bruce is decidedly icky, and Prudence perhaps a little more sympathetic, but, as Bruce begins muddle through the situation, his hearty smile, elicited by getting what he wants, is winning, while Prudence fades, as the pressures of the situation wear her down, looking more and more like promising old maid material, to borrow an expression from the play. Actually we don’t really identify with the desires of any of these characters (e.g “We’ll get a house in Connecticut, and Bob can live over the garage.”), and we don’t really want the boy and the girl to get together—any more than we see a future for Bruce and Bob—but at least we accept the driving power of the fear of loneliness in the end. This is a New York play, after all, that crowded city where people are defeated by their at least partial freedom of choice, an imaginary wealth of choices, and the specificity of their habits and desires, resulting in their inability to make decisions, or even to identify their preferences. In this play Durang undermines both the “elective” and the “affinities.”
The cast was consistently on the same high professional level in a nicely paced and funny production. Katie Finneran was convincingly repressed by her unwillingness to commit to a person who didn’t meet her standards; Darren Goldstein simultaneously conflicted and opportunistic as Bruce, a fairly despicable type, if you think about it; Darrell Hammond wounded and manipulative; Matt McGrath the essence of failed male sexuality; and Kate Burton triumphant in her charismatic portrayal of the thoroughly mad and profoundly incompetent Charlotte. Bryce Pinkham created an effective aura of menace as Andrew the waiter, who, in the existential restaurant with no service, only finally appeared at the end, and not to wait on tables.
In criticism, I’d say that the production didn’t project the New York location with sufficient strength in set, costumes, and manner, except maybe Charlotte. As a New Yorker by upbringing and occasional residency, I couldn’t quite imagine running into any of these people in Manhattan, just as they were played. The restaurant seemed more like Milwaukee’s or Cincinnati’s attempt to reproduce New York, and Katie Finneran’s Prudence didn’t really look like a thirty-something who had been living and working in the city for more than a month or two, that is, a New Yorker.