Character Assassination

A severed penis in the freezer is only the beginning of Betty's troubles during her harrowing vacation. Her trip, which makes Dante's seem like a pleasant stroll, is a roller-coaster ride to hell and back in Betty's Summer Vacation at Stages Repertory Theatre. Beware, sensitive theatergoer: There's a flasher in a yellow rubber raincoat who comes for dinner; a surfer dude who struts about in swim trunks stroking his perpetual hard-on; and an odd laugh-track blasting inexplicably from the ceiling and guffawing at things like incest and rape. It's all meant to be ironic, in a way that only playwright/cultural lampooner Christopher Durang can be. Of course, so was Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, and the British put a bounty on his head for suggesting that the Irish eat their babies to solve their hunger problem. Durang never gets to cannibalism, but he comes close when he looks to Jeffrey Dahmer for inspiration.

Poor Betty -- once she and the rest of these bizarre characters stumble into the festering, surreal world of Durang's lacerating imagination, it's hard to know if anyone will make it out alive, especially if the serial killer holed up in the bedroom has anything to say about it.

Durang is best known for cruel and hysterical slice-of-life-gone-insane scripts like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, in which a dogmatic Catholic nun gets hers; and Baby with the Bathwater, about a boy who is raised as a girl by ridiculously incompetent parents. With Betty's Summer Vacation, Durang takes on the down and dirty entertainment industry in which everything -- from laugh tracks to trashy TV talk shows -- gets scorched under the laser of his unrelenting pen. The result is a play that will shock the meek right out of the theater before the first act is finished. Even the hard-hearted will find themselves squirming through much of this very funny show.

The whole thing starts off innocently enough. Like a bad Frasier episode (a show Durang has appeared in), Betty (Julia Krohn) and Trudy (Kelli Cousins) meet at a beach time-share they've rented for the summer. The lovely and sensible Betty just wants some peace and quiet. What she gets instead is Trudy, with her endless, neurotic chattering and sweaty-palmed hand-wringing.

Soon enough, a sullen and dark-eyed Keith (Dwight Clark) shows up, carrying a creepy leather hat box. Quiet and sweet at first, he bolts straight to the bedroom closet when the women joke that he might be toting a severed head in that box.

The sparks don't really ignite until Mrs. Siezmagraff (Sally Edmundson) arrives. This preening landlady from the dark side turns out to be Trudy's hysterically despicable mother. Dressed up in flaming shades of persimmon and tottering around on a pair of high-heeled mules, this psycho cheerleader mom rules the roost, guzzles vodka and tells tales out of school about Trudy's terrible past.

And then there are those fits of inexplicable laughter bursting from the ceiling at the most inappropriate moments. When Mrs. Siezmagraff tells Betty that Trudy's father "incested her when he was drunk, and I never did anything about it," the invisible voices roar with merriment.

Weird thing is, the audience joins in the laughter, which only underscores Durang's scariest thoughts on the way we've come to crave entertainment at any cost. We tune in with fascination to the horrifying tales of such pathetic people as Lorena Bobbitt and Dahmer, as though their lives were created for public consumption. As Durang tells it, everything previously taboo has been processed for mass consumption by our incessant appetite for something novel. "Entertain me!" the voices in the ceiling demand, as they suggest more acts of violence for these deranged characters to perform. In Durang's world, the interaction between the media and real life has created a cultural wasteland.

This is a bleak view of American life, and it is only Stages' fiery production, propelled by director Rob Bundy's exhilarating cast, that sometimes brightens the darkest moments. Cousins's whining Trudy is perfectly pathetic as she cozies up to the sweetly shy serial killer Keith, who is transformed into a study of nervous darting eyes and creepy grins by Clark. Alex Kilgore, as the sun-bleached, randy surfer Buck, is a walking, talking id as he touches himself with abandon and tells everybody that he needs to get his "rocks off."

The only sane character in a cast of weirdos, Betty is a relatively thankless role for Krohn. Still, the actress is provided one bizarre moment in Durang's ruthlessly comic spotlight when she locates that severed penis. The star of this production is, without question, Edmundson as the Auntie Mame-style mom you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Edmundson delivers the sort of tour-de-force performance that a show like this absolutely requires; only an actress with Edmundson's timing, energy and joie de vivre, as her character puts it, could throw off lines like "fuck you" and send the audience into howls of laughter.

Betty's Summer Vacation is a disturbing peek under the golden rock of America's incredible prosperity. A word of advice to the faint of heart: Don't look if you can't abide Durang's slithering worms of truth.

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Lee Williams