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Theatre in Review: Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties (MCC Theater/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Lea DeLaria. Photo: Joan Marcus

The limitations of our database prevent me from listing this play's full title in our headline slot. The unexpurgated version is Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; In Essence, a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic?; Imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and It's Sort of Like That. It's a mouthful, for more than one reason, and it tells you all you need to know about playwright Jen Silverman's addiction to whimsy and her penchant for self-indulgence. Intended as a kind of queer manifesto, it wants to rattle staid theatregoers with its provocations while simultaneously being adored for its cuteness and cleverness. It's nice work if you can get it.

It will not be lost on many that Collective Rage is filling the slot that was vacated when MCC dropped Neil LaBute's newest work, for unknown reasons, also terminating his residency there. Whatever the reason, it is richly ironic that LaBute, our leading poet of smarmy, squirmy, double-talking, double-dealing male behavior, has made way for this sporadically hilarious (and sometimes lame) fantasia in which five women find self-empowerment through queer sexuality, often achieved via extensive concentration on their genitalia. Whatever else you may say about this up-and-down evening, it does catch the wave of this moment. It's kind of an Off-Broadway pink-pussy-hat parade.

Collective Rage is a series of gags and sketches tied to a very, very loose narrative about a quintet of protagonists, each of them - you won't be surprised to hear -- named Betty. Betty 1 (Dana Delany) is a chic, unhappily married Upper East Side housewife who obsesses over apocalyptic news headlines, assuring us, "There is currently nothing in the whole world that makes me feel better." Betty 2 (Adina Verson) is a fragile thing -- an Aspen leaf would intimidate her -- with a modified poodle cut and a voice that trembles like an oscilloscope. (In my favorite bit, she cops to majoring in Canadian studies in college; is there a more milquetoast form of academic inquiry?) She is entirely undone when, at a dinner party, she is invited to check out her nether regions with a hand mirror, having never previously explored down there. Betty 3 (Ana Villafane, when last heard from, played Gloria Estefan in Broadway's On Your Feet!) is a motormouthed clerk at Sephora who decides to reinvent herself as a theatre artist, picking up plenty of diva attitude along the way. Betty 4 (Lea DeLaria) is a butch number with a legion of tattoos and a knack for automotive work who yearns after Betty 3. Betty 5 (Chaunte Wayans), who runs a gym, is "a gender-non-conforming masculine-presenting female-bodied individual. But I'm comfortable with female pronouns." Recently out of rehab, her goals, she says, are simple: "All I want to do is work on my truck. And eat pussy. And run my boxing gym. And eat pussy."

The action, such as it is, of Collective Rage hinges on Villafane's decision -- having seen only one play, the title of which she recalls as "Summer's Midnight Dream" -- to stage her own production, a frank ripoff of the Pyramus and Thisbe sketch from Shakespeare's comedy. (For purposes of clarity, we will refer to the names of the performers rather than try to sort out the Betties.) Everyone gets drawn into the project, with Verson signing on as an intern and the others taking on roles like The Wall and Moonlight. That none of this makes sense is less an issue than you might think, since the play clearly unfolds entirely in Silverman's imagination. And, even at its shaggiest, this loose-limbed effort, with its where-are-we-going-now ethos, is easy to take, thanks to the presence of five delightful personalities. Delany, who looks great in a sheath dress and boxing gloves, and Wayans are the most charming pair of unlikely lovers to be found on the city's stages at the moment, and their halting romance provides the action with a solid foundation of warmth. Verson's hyperneurotic line readings are unfailingly witty. Villafane's supersonic line readings and increasingly dictatorial manner get laughs: At one point, she instructs Verson, on a coffee run, to get her "an extra-skinny low-fat high-fructose gluten-free soy-rice organic with a dash of cinnamon." "You used to get coffee at Dunkin' Donuts," snaps DeLaria, who also brings some genuine pathos -- along with a great spit take and a few Jackie Gleason-ish line readings -- to the proceedings.

So confidently do all five cast members skate along the play's thin surface, they make it seem better than it is. It is possessed of a certain audacity that proves disarming, but some of the jokes are sitcom-leaden. Delany is forced into a "some of my best friends" moment that hasn't earned a laugh since Archie Bunker departed his easy chair. The idea of pronouncing "theatre" as "thea-tah," not amusing to begin with, is flogged to death. And then there's this exchange, right out of the Rodney Dangerfield joke book:

Betty 1: We don't talk about sex at dinner parties.

Betty 3: What else do you talk about?

Betty 2: We aren't having sex, so we can't talk about it.

Betty 3: Maybe you should start having it.

Betty 1 (this should be obvious): We're married.

Even as a calculated shocker, Collective Rage falls a bit short: In the age of Donald Trump, I question whether the word "pussy" has any shock value left; here, after two or three dozen enunciations, it comes to seem as mundane as "toaster oven" or "glove compartment." The play celebrates identity politics while simultaneously exposing the limits of such; like so much politically minded comedy these days, it is more bark than bite.

In any case, Mike Donahue's direction goes a long way toward keeping things buoyant, and the ladies make fine company, no matter the circumstances. Dane Laffrey's rehearsal-room setting isn't much to look at, but his prop-delivery system -- in which large pieces are deposited through the low dropped ceiling -- is fun. The front of the ceiling piece acts as a surface for Caite Hevner's projections of Silverman's rather twee scenic titles. (Example: "Betties 3 and 4 Discover That Highbrow Things Are Just Things That Seem To Be About Other Things When They're Actually About Pussy.") Jen Schriever's lighting and Palmer Hefferan's sound design are both solid. Dede Ayite's costumes sharply delineate each character, and her madly over-the-top outfits for Villafane -- including skin-tight jeans and a two-tone marabou jacket -- are a scream.

At best beguiling and at worst harmless, Collective Rage is sufficiently of the moment that it is likely to bring pleasure and relief to an audience starved for new female voices. But it would have been even better if it had something to say. The final projected image features multiple pussies, outfitted with wings, taking flight. (I'm glad someone resisted the urge to call the show When Pussies Fly.) It's a cute idea -- but where is the collective rage? -- David Barbour

(13 September 2018)

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