Surfin' Safari

Though both are set in beach houses, two plays approach the locale from opposite angles and shine a different light on their characters.

Oct 3, 2001 at 4:00 am
A lot of people won't like Betty's Summer Vacation, the debut offering by the new RiverCity Theatre. Christopher Durang's anarchical 1999 farce about a wacky, whack-y weekend at a beach house has something to offend almost everyone. The premise is simple enough: Betty's plan to spend a quiet weekend at the beach is thwarted by roommates that include nymphomaniacs, grisly head-loppers and genital flashers. Be warned: if you're put off by incest, rape or castration, this comedy might not be for you.

Having gotten that disclaimer out of the way, it also should be noted that Betty's Summer Vacation is sustained by an originality that few plays possess. You've never seen a comedy quite like this, because, well, there's never been a comedy quite like this before.

Despite the many outrages contained in Betty, Durang is not trying to shock us. To the contrary, he's pointing out that nothing shocks us anymore. Who is left to listen to the Cassandra-like warnings contained in a play that tries to parody today's America, when that play's audience already wallows so willingly in the degrading, desensitizing scandals (OJ/Monica/Gary ad nauseum) that assault us every day?

By today's numbing standards, the goings-on at Betty's beach house would seem tame and mundane were it not for the fact that all this brutality is presided over by three unseen, giggling voices who delight in contemporary American culture. At first, they seem innocuous enough. (Hal the Computer was also innocuous enough at the outset of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) But then, as time goes by, the voices begin to -- well, better that you see for yourself. After all, it's the voices that provide this play with its originality.

In Stephen King's hands, the voices would be eerily menacing. On a TV sitcom, they'd be confused for a mindless laugh-track. But as conceived by Durang, these voices are sheer theater. They provide a direct thru-line back to the choruses in Greek tragedy, those stately characters that stood off to the side, bemoaning the sad fate of man. Betty's voices are hardly solemn; rather, they take glee in pointing out the sad, surreal state to which America has succumbed.

Under the knowing and modulated direction of Milton Zoth, the fledgling RiverCity company gives the comedy a lucid, thoughtful mounting. Although working at a fevered pitch on a set with more doors than a Feydeau farce, the cohesive cast displays admirable restraint -- not easy in a play in which the theme is excess. As Betty, Sara Renschen has the especially difficult challenge of projecting sanity in an insane world. While the role would tempt any actress to turn Betty into a shrill, reactive screech, Renschen wisely resists those temptations. She becomes the play's anchor, and a welcome presence.

Yet as fine as the actors are, always one returns to the relentless voices. "They're just a fact," Betty bemoans in Act Two. "We can't stop them." One might as well try to stop the publication of the National Enquirer, or halt the syndication of the Jerry Springer Show. But in fact, we don't have to read tabloids (or even tabloid headlines) and we can surf past junk TV easily enough. But do we? Perhaps our moral indignation is laced with more than a tinge of hypocrisy.

"We have met the enemy and he is us," Walt Kelly's Pogo declared on Earth Day 1971. Thirty years later, Christopher Durang seems to be riffing, "We have heard the voices, and they are ours." At its very least, Betty's Summer Vacation reminds us of how stimulating, provocative and downright subversive live theater can be.

One of the many doomed characters in Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, performed by Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts, is a prudish spinster who bemoans the shameful, decadent world in which she is forced to live (though not for much longer). One can only imagine how she would have reacted to Betty's Summer Vacation.

It is a legitimate query, because the exterior plot of this classic thriller is surprisingly similar to the one in Christopher Durang's comedy. Once again, a group of strangers arrives at an isolated beach house where some very lethal events are about to occur. Here too, the guests will be methodically, maniacally murdered.

But let's not take this linkage too far. After all, Ten Little Indians was first produced in 1943, six years before Durang was even born. By 1943, the 53-year-old Agatha Christie was at the peak of her form, already having created such memorable detectives as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She'd published more than 40 mystery novels and scores of short stories. But playwriting was still a challenge. Ten Little Indians, which she adapted from her 1939 novel And Then There Were None, is one of Christie's earliest melodramas and, together with the devilishly clever Witness for the Prosecution, among her most effective.

As a novelist, Christie understood the Golden Rule of mystery writing: Everyone is expendable. As a dramatist, she cared little for character development. (Why bother to develop a character who is soon going to die?) Instead, in each mystery she sets about creating a particular world. If the audience accepts that world, the author can "get away with murder."

At the outset of the opening-night performance at Webster University, the youthful audience manifested a somewhat condescending superiority to the events onstage. But by Act Two, as guests were being eliminated in the most unexpected ways, that same audience sat rapt, totally absorbed by the puzzle. By the play's surprising end, had anyone dared to boast that he or she had figured out the identity of the killer in advance, likely that braggart would have been stoned to death. All these years later, this aged, but efficient, melodrama is still able to surprise and deceive.

For that success, credit a uniformly fine cast piloted by director Tim Ocel, who utilizes all the tools at his disposal to provide access to Agatha Christie's remote universe. These tools include the impervious gulls and forbidding ocean waves heard to great effect in Joe Hodge's sound design, as well as the subtle mood shifts reflected in John Ryan's lighting plot. The director also makes good use of the stage levels on Jeffrey Guebert's clean set to keep the story as visually interesting as possible.

There was a time when every Broadway season included at least one surefire thriller. Mega-hits like Angel Street in the 1940s, Dial "M" for Murder in the '50s, Sleuth in the '70s and Deathtrap in the early '80s each ran for years. But of late, this genre has gone out of style. A recent Broadway revival of the 1966 mystery Wait Until Dark, starring Quentin Tarantino as the villain, was very nearly hooted off the stage. Too bad, because as this tidy production makes clear, the cleansing concentration involved in attempting to keep up with a well-crafted "whodunnit" is more than a guilty pleasure -- it also can provide a welcome respite from a weary world.