As anybody who's ever told a joke knows, the reading of the punch line is everything. What's funny in one person's mouth can fall flat in another's. The difference is savvy--not the most tangible element to hang on to.
But savvy's what it takes to pull off the highly stylized stuff Christopher Durang writes for the stage. And savvy's what's lacking in the production of "Beyond Therapy" that has opened at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage.
"Switching tone from lunatic comedy to momentary seriousness or ruefulness," Durang comments in an introduction to his plays, "is something that interests me."
Indeed it does. It's clever and extremely tricky to pull off. The actors in Durang's "Beyond Therapy" at South Coast give it a real try. They huff and they puff, but they do not make it work.
Entirely too much of this biting, zany sendup of therapy, its practitioners and their "patients" comes off as a gigantic effort to be funny by actors who should know (and probably do) that comedy can't look like hard work even if it is.
The premise is deceptively simple: Prudence (Annabella Price) responds to a personal ad placed by Bruce (R. Hamilton Wright) who is living with a male lover, Bob (Nathan Haas), but has decided he wants to marry and have children. Never mind why. This doesn't exactly thrill Bob, who pouts a good deal, or his mother, who takes to the phone like air waves.
Bruce and Prudence are both in therapy with psychologists who are more psycho than therapists--and much more in need of their own ministrations than their so-called patients.
Prudence's "doctor," Stuart (a manic Gregory Itzin), is compulsive about his masculinity; Bruce's therapist, Charlotte (Martha McFarland), is compulsive about just about everything, including baby talk, eating, forgetting words and case histories.
The pitfalls in such broad and flimsy material are enormous and unless it's handled with a dexterous lightness and a giddy good humor, it can easily slip into terminal silliness.
That is unfortunately what happens at South Coast where Price and especially Wright are bland to the point of colorlessness, Haas holds way back on the scripted (and useful) flamboyance of his role, while Itzin and McFarland go so far overboard with theirs that the curious imbalance makes rather a mess of things.
In addition, there seemed to be problems at Sunday's matinee with dropped lines in some of McFarland's scenes. This had the effect of making the pratfalls unfunny and flattening the already forced effervescence of the performance.
Wrecked timing, however, was no one's private reserve. It happened all over the place with similarly unhappy results--nowhere so unhappy as in the first set of collisions among Prudence, Bruce, Bob and Bob's telephone mother. The nuts and bolts of the comedy were all over the figurative floor Sunday, like the dismantled parts of an malfunctioning laugh machine. What should have been funny was mildly off-putting. And the play's once-innocuous statements about homosexuality have grown chilly in the gray light of the AIDS crisis. The production's failures make the chill glaring.
Tom Ruzika's lighting and Robert Blackman's versatile set and smart costumes are on target, but they're not enough to pull this Durang comedy out of the doldrums.
When it comes off at all in this incarnation, it comes off as puerile and silly. But we know better and are a step ahead of director Warner Shook who, surprisingly, has largely miscast it and allows it to careen from overwrought to flaccid, with the overall effect as disjointed as a high school effort.
The question might not have come up had the production been a smash, but one has to wonder why a revival of "Beyond Therapy" now? Aside from the fact it had a long and happy run at the L.A. Public only three years ago, it's a script that needs a little revising.
Performances at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa run Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., until May 24. Tickets: $18-$23 (714-957-4033).