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Theatre in Review: Beyond Therapy (The Actors Company Theatre/Theatre Row)

Jeffrey C. Hawkins, Mark Alhadeff, and Liv Rooth. Photo Marielle Solan Photography

Beyond Therapy begins with the blind date from hell: Having been introduced through a personal ad, Bruce and Prudence meet for the first time in a restaurant. He says, "I hope you don't think I'm too macho for you." He also tells her she has beautiful breasts. He tears up, puts his head down on the table, and sobs. And, in passing, he mentions Bob, his male lover. Of course, he adds, we are all born bisexual: "If you took a child to Plato's Retreat, he'd be attracted to both sexes."

The previous graph identifies the problems afflicting Beyond Therapy , which go beyond the fact that not too many members of the audience will recall the notorious '70s-era sex club in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel. Conceived as a scattershot collection of gags about dating and psychotherapy, the play shows no interest whatsoever in consistency of plot and character. It's basically an R-rated, 95-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. If she had an ounce of sense, Prudence would ditch Bruce at the earliest possible moment; instead, she chooses to keep seeing him. She complains about Bruce to Stuart, her therapist, but this is of little use because Stuart is also her ex-lover. Well, maybe that term is strong; they went on only a couple of dates, all of which ended disastrously, thanks to Stuart's problems with premature ejaculation. Of course, Stuart doesn't think he has a problem; he feels that any woman who wants a sexual encounter to last longer than, say, five minutes, is a demanding whore.

Bruce, meanwhile, reports back on his date with Prudence to Charlotte, his therapist. Charlotte is far more sympathetic than Stuart, but she has problems of her own, especially her positively aphasic way with words. Picking up the phone, she asks her "dirigible" (secretary) to send in the next "porpoise" (patient).

Things go from bad to worse when Bruce invites Prudence to his apartment for dinner and their planned private evening is interrupted by a fuming Bob. The already-fraught situation is exacerbated by Bob's mother, who keeps calling up to sing "Rose's Turn" over the telephone. It's no wonder that, at one point, Prudence announces, "I want to become a lesbian and move in with Kate Millett."

Christopher Durang had such a rollicking hit last season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that the idea of reviving Beyond Therapy must have seemed like a no-brainer. But Beyond Therapy flopped on Broadway in 1981 with a cast led by John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest, and its chances are not much better 30 years later with a game cast of TACT regulars, most of whom seem hamstrung by the task of bringing these cartoon characters to life. I, for one, don't blame them.

Even in 1981, Durang's unwillingness to create any recognizably real context for his gag lines meant that Beyond Therapy quickly grew tiresome. Most of his zingers were shock laughs, and all these years later, the thrill of them is gone. The play's treatment of homosexuality, which certainly seemed daring at the time, now seems ugly and out of date. Speaking about Bob's bad attitude, Prudence cracks, "Maybe he's getting his period." Stuart, horrified at Prudence's decision to keep seeing Bruce, snaps, "You're a fag hag." Somebody says, "He doesn't seem like a homosexual; he doesn't lisp."

Thanks to Durang's fondness for topical gags, Beyond Therapy is a veritable time capsule of a play, filled with references to Jill Clayburgh, Equus, Sean Cassidy, Betty Friedan, Joyce DeWitt, and the films Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, The Towering Inferno, and Tora! Tora! Tora!. The odd gag still pays off; I rather liked Prudence's comment that, instead of going to her prom, she stayed home and read Notes from the Underground. And Charlotte provides a memorably dizzy explanation of how one's choice of sexual positions reveals one's deepest desires. For example, she says, a woman who prefers to be on top desires to dominate her partner. And "couples who prefer the missionary position would like to do missionary work in Ghana." But by the time everyone gathers in a restaurant where gunplay is on the menu, Beyond Therapy has long worn out its welcome.

It's symptomatic of Beyond Therapy 's problems that Liv Rooth, who scored so brilliantly in All in the Timing at Primary Stages last season, seems so at sea as Prudence. But the same is true of Mark Alhadeff (who at least invests Bruce with some sweetness); Karl Kenzler as the loutish Stuart; and Jeffrey C. Hawkins as the petulant Bob. Cynthia Darlow's Charlotte starts slow but eventually earns some laughs. Michael Schantz is briefly amusing as a waiter who apparently only can be summoned by the sound of bullets.

If the director, Scott Alan Evans, can't find an acceptable comic tone, he does add some kicky '80s-era touches to the staging, filling the scene changes with disco dance moves set to a playlist that includes "Hungry Heart," "Guilty," and "Maniac." (The amusing sound design is by Jill BC Du Boff.) Thomas Cariello's tripartite set design allows for rapid transitions and includes, as a bonus, a nifty view of the New York skyline. Kim Krumm Sorenson, the costume designer, has done her homework, dressing Rooth in the high-waisted, body-hugging pantsuits of the period with complementary silk blouses. (At times, she looks like Amy Adams in American Hustle.) Darlow appears in an amusingly hippy-dippy ensemble dominated by an enormous head scarf. And Kenzler's macho getup includes boots, an open shirt, and a vast belt buckle that draws Prudence's scorn. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting is thoroughly solid.

Line for line, Durang has always been a brilliant topical humorist, but this means some of his plays don't have the longest of shelf lives. For example, I wonder what Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, which slayed at the Public Theater a couple of seasons back, will look like in a few years. I'd love to see a company take a flyer on Laughing Wild, one of his most hilarious and heartfelt pieces, but since the second act takes in a fantasy version of The Sally Jessy Raphael Show, it might not work either. (I'd really, really like to see a revival of A History of American Film, but that collection of riotous movie spoofs is probably beyond the budget of most companies.) Time will tell about all these plays and others, I guess; based on this production, it has already told about Beyond Therapy . --David Barbour

(26 March 2014)

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