ARTicles vol. 5 i.4a: A World Without a Roadmap

Resident Director Marcus Stern guides the A.R.T./MXAT Class of 2007 through the comedy and pathos of Christopher Durang's Betty’s Summer Vacation.

When Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation received an Obie Award for playwrighting in 1999, the play’s dark satire on America’s obsession with celebrity crimes hit a nerve. The sensational trials of Lorena Bobbitt and the Menendez brothers flooded the national consciousness. Viewing this world from the wide-eyed perspective of Betty, an innocent searching for peace at the seashore, Durang takes the audience on a carnival thrill ride, making it laugh without minimizing the violence. Durang’s plays balance the exorcism of his personal demons while pointing fingers at society’s foibles. Encouraged by Robert Brustein while still a student, Durang developed into a playwright who pushed the boundaries of comedy. His plays are raucous and side-splittingly funny without compromising pathos. After loosing his mother to cancer, Durang rejected the theology of his Catholic upbringing for an existence without absolute truth. His plays search for meaning while exploring the comedy of a world without a roadmap. Like Trudy and Keith in Betty’s Summer Vacation, his characters are often scarred from dysfunctional families, and they desperately look for justice in an unjust world. “Parody, to me, is a fun way to celebrate something you love, while satire is a way to point out stupidities or destructiveness in some subject that upsets you,” says Durang. Parodying T.V. sitcoms, characters enter Betty’s rental shorehouse with a convenient speech informing the viewers of their stereotype: the talkative best-friend Trudy, the suspiciously sensitive Keith, the womanizing, athletic Buck, and the interfering, fun-loving mother, Mrs. Siezmagraff. Durang gives Betty comic situations to react to that grow increasingly disturbing. Trapped with housemates who begin to feed their darker desires for sex and murder, Betty finds her voice. “We’ve had enough for one day. Life has to have some dignity too, it’s not all disgusting and vicious.” Marcus Stern, director of such A.R.T. productions as The Onion Cellar, finds Durang’s plays compelling. Brustein brought Stern to the A.R.T. after seeing his production of Martin Crimp’s The Treatment at the Public Theatre. Brustein was struck by Stern’s “electric imagination, suggestive yet precise imagery, and depth of feeling.” Stern, who is also a photographer, uses a visual vocabulary that remains true to the text and at the same time creates a dreamscape. Brustein believes “Marcus’s greatest contribution to the A.R.T., aside from his wonderful work with undergraduates, is his capacity to mark each new venture with originality and daring. He never repeats himself.” Stern, who has directed several Durang plays before, including The Nature and Purpose of the Universe and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, was drawn to Betty’s Summer Vacation because “it is simultaneously a dark, twisted world while also being entertaining. All Durang’s characters have a wounded heart trying to heal.” Upon first reading, Stern found the play suspended between brutality and forgiveness. Betty, trapped with her housemates, witnesses the dysfunctional relationship between an Auntie Mame-like mother and her sexually abused daughter. Betty also battles with her mother, who chides her over the phone. “Fine ... fine ... I’ll marry one of them,” retorts Betty, “Do you want me to marry the macho pig or the serial killer?” Stern found the wild swings in character between comedy and pathos a great educational opportunity for the second-year acting students at the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. “Everything has to be based on the reality of that absurd world. The actors have the opportunity to go as big as they need to in the same way that cartoons like Shrek can be both real and wildly entertaining.” The challenge, then, for actors is to embrace Durang’s outlandish situations while grounding them in reality. Durang’s world, where characters thrive on violence and sensationalism, becomes even more relevant as hard news gives way to entertainment and the public’s appetite for celebrity. Kristen Frazier, the second-year Institute actress who plays Betty, confesses that after reading the play she “bought People Magazine for the first time in years. The noise in the media feels so hollow. This play made me feel like I had to get back in touch again with the noise to understand it. In undergrad, I had a roommate who used to watch those 100 Most Popular Celebrity Countdown shows and I would get sucked in. What is different from who we were ten years ago is now we have IPODs, people create a soundtrack to their lives. We substitute external sounds for our own personal noise.” For Stern, Betty’s Summer Vacation reveals the desire to fill our minds with the noise of someone else’s story to escape personal demons. “The desire for mental and emotional noise is everywhere today. People are afraid of silence. No one wants to be quiet inside. Society is clamoring for more and more outside noise and sensational news so we don’t have to listen to our inner voices.” Durang dramatizes how people want to be entertained by the racket to avoid looking within. Despite Durang’s demented escalation of events, Betty escapes the beach house and to find redemption. Within this meaningless noise, Durang allows a moment of quiet hope. Betty’s Summer Vacation is the fourth of five productions for the Institute season at the Zero Arrow Theatre, which will include Eugene Ionesco's Slaughter Games in June. This year’s season, which included the screwball comedy The Front Page, followed by Sheila Callaghan’s Kate Crackernuts and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, has explored the tricky balance between characters with tragic emotions trapped within a comic, absurd world. Scott Zigler, director of the Institute, believes presenting contemporary plays deepens the relationship between the Institute and the A.R.T., making the Institute the primary venue for showcasing new dramaturgy. “Theatres have to give voice to writers whose plays reflect the current time. Young actors embrace the opportunity to bring to life a voice that is born of the same period they are living in. It’s important to do work that speaks immediately to right now.”

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