Iowa City – Public Space One was filled with well-earned laughter last Friday as an opening-night audience enjoyed Dreamwell Theatre’s production of Beyond Therapy by contemporary American playwright Christopher Durang. Expert comic performances and spirited staging make this wicked satire of the absurdities of modern life a real pleasure. In it Durang mixes professional therapists, pop psychology, current dating habits, sexual identity, motherhood, and the difficulty of getting good service in restaurants to produce a screwball portrait of society at the edge of nervous collapse. If you don’t see yourself on stage at some point, you’re not paying attention.
Prudence and Bruce are singles who meet for a first date when Prudence answers Bruce’s ad in the Personals column. Both are nervous and overburdened with expectations, and the date quickly goes off track. It’s a predictable opening but first meetings never go well in rom-coms, do they? There wouldn’t be a plot if they did.
We soon learn that both Bruce and Prudence are in therapy, and once we meet their therapists we understand why neither is getting out soon. Prudence is a patient of Stuart, a preening Lothario who’s lost all sense of doctor-patient boundaries. Bruce sees Charlotte, a loopy New Age guru-wannabe who’s lost all sense of therapy’s boundaries, period. To symbolize this, Durang gives her a hilarious problem with vocabulary. It’s one of the play’s cleverest inventions.
Bruce’s real trouble, however, is with his roommate, Bob. What about Bob? I won’t reveal any more, but there are surprises in store as these initial relationships evolve, devolve, collide, and overlap on the way to the play’s quirky but comforting conclusion. Durang’s characters are beset by loneliness, confusion, insecurity, feelings of betrayal, even despair, and it’s all very funny. How does he do this? Take a page from Woody Allen and another from Anton Chekhov, then paint it black. And whatever color zany is. Durang delights in forcing us to laugh at bizarre situations and uncomfortable topics, but he’s not mean about it. He just likes to make us squirm.
The cast succeeds in making us like these exasperating, self-centered, and genuinely disturbed people. Jordan Running and Kelly Garrett as the would-be lovers Bruce and Prudence are walking portraits of chronic frustration. Running’s halting delivery and nervous hand gestures perfectly conveys Bruce’s low self-esteem and timidity, while Garrett is a bundle of nervous energy pacing the stage, screwing up her eyes as if trying to see the decisions she’s too confused or afraid to make. Brad Quinn, as the conniving Stuart, is all alpha male bluster one moment and whining neediness the next. His character’s deplorable behavior could have made him the piece’s villain, but Quinn insinuates he’s the one most in need of therapy. Bryant Duffy movingly transforms Bob, a somewhat stock comic character as written, into a warm, believable person. And Jessica Wilson as Charlotte, the spacey therapist, absolutely shines. Popping her eyes like a vaudeville comedian, leaping from her chair or laughing unexpectedly, and tackling her character’s peculiar linguistic challenge with perfect timing and delivery, she weaves a goofy spell over the entire evening. Durang wrote some of the best gags for Charlotte and Wilson makes the most of them all.
Nicole Reedy’s direction by and large achieves the proper balance for this type of play. It’s a psychological drama dressed up as a farce—or is it the other way around?—and precise pacing and tone sustain the tension between the two genres. The actors have enough freedom to reveal their characters’ quirks and grab their big comedic moments without the play uncoupling into a series of set-pieces or becoming mired in “schtick.” If I have one criticism, it’s that Reedy may have exerted too much control over the finale. The play is a series of two or three-person scenes until the last one when all the characters come together for the first time. Everything is on the table—literally—as the characters thrash their various ways to something resembling a happy ending. I can’t help feeling that all the stops should be pulled out for this climax so the stage bursts with crazy energy. It proceeded too carefully and methodically, in my opinion. It’s funny, to be sure, but I think Durang intended a bit more anarchy before the dust settles on the play’s quiet final moments.
Beyond Therapy appeared in 1981 and is filled with pop culture allusions from that era, like disco and the sitcom Three’s Company. Younger audience members might be puzzled by some of these, but I’m grateful Dreamwell didn’t substitute current references for surer laughs. Durang’s play is a time capsule of the 1970s-80s, and it sheds light on the fears and insecurities of today’s world by revealing their roots in what was trending just a couple of decades ago.
It’s fascinating to consider this play in connection with last month’s production of 1984, the first in Dreamwell’s season,“Interrogation: Uncovering the Buried Self.” The interrogations here are between therapists and their patients and couples hashing out their relationships, rather than between state officials and political prisoners. At first glance, the two plays have little in common, but is it too much of a stretch to compare a society that restricts individual desire to such an extent that happiness is nearly impossible to achieve to a state that tries to eliminate it altogether? I think Durang would appreciate the juxtaposition. He wants us to laugh at what is most troubling, painful, and contradictory in our lives—ultimately, what most confines our freedom–not just because it’s good therapy, but because that’s the only way we can go beyond the limitations they impose.
The shows runs one more weekend. Tickets available here.