Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christopher Durang Parodies It All for You

Heather Peterson and Mack Carroll in Nina in the Morning.
Bad Habit Productions keeps kind of just missing its big break. It's one of the stalwarts of the fringe (the Cambridge fringe, which centers on the YMCA in Central Square) and regularly delivers smart, snappy productions - just not consistently enough to hang onto the public's attention span.  And when it does have a breakout production, usually with a zippy farce like last year's Ideal Husband, its big idea tends to get "borrowed" by other theatres.  Add to that the fact that press coverage is drying up in this town for everything but full-equity shows, and it's no wonder the company's latest, Durang Durang (which I think closes tomorrow) has garnered little or no press attention.

Which is too bad, because it features several strong performances from folks who toil on the cusp between Boston's community and semi-pro scenes, and who are looking for their "big break," too.  The evening itself - a collection of parodies and one-acts by dark, ditzy farceur Christopher Durang - is a bit hiss-or-miss (the parodies are generally stronger than the farces, but everything has a tendency to go on a bit too long), but at its best it's wicked funny, just as it should be, particularly to theatre types who can appreciate the playwright's precise puncturings of the likes of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard.

As a playwright, Durang is a curious case - his influence has actually been huge, even though he has probably never written a great play, and only one or two really good ones (Beyond Therapy, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You).  His central emotional trope - commingled horror of/attraction to the cruel pleasures of nihilistic freedom - has certainly proved durable. But the trouble with Durang is that he suffers from a kind of dramatic attention deficit disorder - he can't sustain a story or even a scene for very long; addicted to the "freedom" that terrifies him, he has to constantly dodge in and out of various meta-theatrical modes that are, admittedly, funny, but also destroy any larger ambition he might have for his work.  Still, his attendant, vaguely-collegiate attitude - that of a smart-aleck, all-knowing auditor of what's happening on stage - has pervaded pop culture; watch any Simpsons episode, and you're bound to feel his influence, and Ryan Landry's whole schtick is merely a variant of his M.O.

And if you're interested in his history, Durang Durang operates as a solid introduction to the playwright, for good and ill, as it showcases both his strengths and weaknesses in about equal measure.   The most famous of the parodies (some of which I vaguely remember seeing years ago at the ART) is the gender-bent Glass Menagerie send-up For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, but the best is probably A Stye of the Eye, which isn't so much a parody as a satire - actually, a brutal putdown - of the intellectual pretensions of Sam Shepard (particularly his dopey A Lie of the Mind).  Here Shelley Brown, Jenny Gutbezahl, Julie Jarvis, and Mike Budwey all had a field day, and the trenchant one-liners came thick and fast; I think my favorite moment came when wizened old "Ma" opined that her two warring sons "Seem like opposite sides of the same personality . . . ta think I gave birth ta two symbols, and me without a college education!!"  Yup, that's Sam Shepard in a nutshell.

The trouble is that when Durang, the brilliant parodist, tries to spread his own dramatic wings, he can't get off the ground - or he falls victim to the same superficial tendencies he so expertly lampoons in others.  Nina in the Morning, for instance, resembles what a Sam Shepard one-act would look like if Shepard had been born gay in Beverly Hills.  And Wanda's Visit is really just an extended sitcom episode.  Meanwhile Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room features some viciously accurate satire of the Hollywood scene, but centers around a playwright who can't write a real play (and who ends up folding laundry onstage).

So what happened to Christopher Durang?  How did he start at the Yale Rep, connected to everybody and everyone, with a smart sensibility to boot - yet end up folding laundry and writing TV pilots?  I don't know, and Durang Durang doesn't tell us.  But as we ponder the playwright's disappointing career, at least we can enjoy his waspish critical wit, as well as a few more sharp performances at Bad Habit: Heather Peterson knocked both Nina and Tea Room out of the park, and there were more nice turns from Julie Jarvis, Sheryl Johns, Mack Carroll, and Joseph O'Connor.  With performances like these, it's only a matter of time before Bad Habit finds a larger place in the city's theatrical scene.

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