Russ Hunt's Reviews

Betty's Summer Vacation
by Christopher Durang

UNB Theatre (Stage Left)
January 2001

Satiric theatre in general is difficult for a number of reasons. One is that because there's no narrative voice to establish a context, it's up to the audience to see the difference between a real character, whom we're supposed to understand, expect things about, perhaps empathize with, and a stick figure whom we're supposed only to laugh at because she represents something else. Another is that it's difficult to escape becoming broad and crude -- selecting obvious targets that everybody can laugh at comfortably rarther than difficult ones, that might make your audience squirm a bit -- in order to make your point clear enough to audiences who only have action and dialogue to guide their responses.

Christopher Durang is a playwright who is often identified as succeeding in this difficult genre, and Betty's Summer Vacation is a play that is often pointed to as an example. And certainly, at least in concept and much of the time in execution, the script is pointedly and effectively satiric. The premise is clever: as we watch a pretty predictably crude and excessive parody of a television situation comedy, the laugh track (which we hear from the "ceiling") becomes more and more obvious, aquires a character, becomes apparent to the characters on stage, and eventually takes over the show, driving all the events and characters before it in its insatiable hunger for the next jolt, the next sensation, the next interruption in its otherwise intolerable boredom. The play and characters we see undergoing this pressure -- it's the story of how Betty's summer rental goes wrong, because she brings her insufferably voluable friend Trudy along, because the other rooms become occupied by a repressed serial killer, a completely unrepressed stud, Trudy's Auntie Mamesque estranged mother, and a vagrant exhibitionist and sex maniac, and because the laugh track in the ceiling demands that everything to to an extreme, and beyond, if possible -- is one guaranteed not to engage us very deeply, even as we're invited to feel sorry for Betty, the lone voice of normal humanity and decency in the play. It's also (and perhaps this is the play's main problem) designed to make people who've gone to the theatre feel fairly comfortable: we all know, after all, that TV and the TV audience is contemptible. We can laugh pretty smugly at the prurient demands of the audience for increasing doses of shock, for more information about O. J. Simpson, the Bobbitts, Michael Jackson, and for more images of sex and violence.

The UNB Theatre production provided lots of laughs -- some of them, of course, pretty inexpensive -- and gave us a chance to experience Durang's excoriating humor.

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