What do you say about a play that features a woman brandishing a severed penis like a sword? A comedy in which the same woman, an incest survivor, criticizes a fast-moving potential suitor for behaving just like her father? A romp with a cast of characters that includes a serial killer, a serial flasher, and a serially neglectful mother so hungry for male attention that she ignored the aforementioned incest? If the play is Betty’s Summer Vacation by Christopher Durang, you say buy your tickets now.
As produced by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC) at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, Durang’s witty work elicits the kind of big belly laughs that leave audience members shaking in their seats. Yet the playwright laces his zany proceedings with zinfandel-dark satire that comments on the notions of sanity, celebrity, and the modern need to be constantly entertained. Pay close enough attention and you’ll be left shaken for an altogether different reason.
For one thing, yours won’t be the only laughter heard rippling through the room. As Betty (Kirsten Quinn) and Trudy (Amanda Schoonover) settle into their seaside share—rendered in kitschy pastels by set designer Dirk Durossette and lighted with appropriate abrasiveness by Joshua Schulman—the sounds of a sitcom studio audience seem to greet them. The disembodied voices move from boisterous yet hollow laughter to mischievous demands as the two women, and the kooky compatriots in their orbit, wonder where in the world they’re coming from.
It would be poor form to spoil the source of these constant interruptions, which are performed live by the delectable trio of Carlos Forbes, Kassy Bradford, and Josh Hitchens. Durang himself stops short of fully defining their origin: Are they aliens? Representations of the id? The remnants of a mind spiraling into a dissociative state? But he leaves little doubt about what they represent. Written in 1999, Betty’s Summer Vacation critiques the first wave of the 24-hour entertainment cycle, when Court TV and celebrity gossip launched a steady stream for a tuned-out, dead-eyed mass audience.
Now that the majority of the population spends inordinate amounts of time staring at screens, the playwright’s recognition of mass susceptibility to anesthetizing infotainment feels prescient. As a satirist and an absurdist, he cleaves it to a sitcom from hell—a heightened state that director Tina Brock realizes with pinpoint precision. And as a writer who takes up the topics of guilt, shame, and the darkness beneath manicured surfaces in his best work (like The Marriage of Bette and Boo or The Vietnamization of New Jersey), he recognizes no demarcating line between the lightest humor and the deepest human tragedy.
So be prepared for a parade of misery—in addition to the taboos already mentioned, you’ll be met with child abuse, rape, dismemberment, nymphomania, extreme violence, strained familial bonds, torture, and sociopathic behavior. Those with an unbearable aversion to these topics best stay home. Those who attend will laugh, and then probably hate themselves for it. Spoiler alert: That’s what the playwright intends.
Because that’s what we do, after all, when we revel in the easily accessible miseries and misdeeds of others. The references name-checked in the script are now somewhat dated, but the concepts they represent are not. And even when the characters discuss then-current affairs, we realize how close some of them still are. Andrew Cunanan’s real-time suicide? Hello, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. A withering comment about Michael Jackson’s junk? Might I suggest Leaving Neverland?
Quinn excels in her straightwoman duties, which are not without a few tartly funny moments. Schoonover has always been a cutup, but she’s equally at home playing somber; those elements merge brilliantly in a performance that highlights the truly damaging aftereffects of abuse. She can sell the most outrageous lines with absolute sincerity, a tiny glint in her eye the only thing betraying the ridiculousness of the moment. She pairs perfectly with Anthony Crosby’s deliciously deadpan killer Keith.
Brock herself takes on the role of Mrs. Siezmagraff, Trudy’s horrendous mother, and turns in a performance living up to the character’s name. The laughs she draws defy the Richter scale. Chris Fluck and Bill Rahill do fine work in smaller, less well-defined roles.
And those voices? They have one mandate: Entertain us. The explosive ending of Betty’s Summer Vacation leaves open the question of whether it’s better to succeed or fail at this demand.
What, When, Where
Betty’s Summer Vacation. By Christopher Durang, directed by Tina Brock. Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Through June 30, 2019, at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 285-0472 or idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org.
Walnut Street Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There is an elevator to the third floor. Patrons with questions about accessible seating can email [email protected].