Beyond Therapy – Christopher Durang and the modern marriage. (Theatre Review)
King Street Theatre and Understudy Theatre
28 Jan to 14 Feb. You can grab your tickets here.
Christopher Durang writes a deceptively complex script using absurdist narrative structures to laugh at a topic he clearly takes very seriously in Beyond Therapy which is still a little like watching a 70’s American sit-com if it were written by Oscar Wilde. Beyond Therapy first appeared around nine years after Peter Shaffer’s Equus, a play it references regularly throughout, but it is only a year or two after Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan, when talking about one’s therapist was en vogue. Shaffer’s play questions the value of “naturalising” everyone through therapy (Durang labels Equus the play where stabbing horses eyes out is better than becoming normal) while Durang, rather than assume abnormality is preferable, asks the question of assimilation over annihilation; the assumption being we are all sort of fucked up anyway, but if you conform to societal standards of normalcy, at least you don’t have to battle everyone you meet – only your internal self, who you have to battle anyway. However, as if to correct Equus in some way, the choices Durang’s protagonists have to make are not between acting normal and gouging out horses eyes, rather they become political, where to be married and conform is to deny the relationship of preference. In the case of Beyond Therapy, that preference is a same-sex connection.
And suddenly we have a very contemporary problem brought to us in classic 1980’s Christopher Durang style. As director Johann Walraven says in his notes, the play is deeply personal (Walraven is in his mid thirties, wondering if it is time to settle down and behave as expected or does he “wait” for “the one”) highlighting the always present political perspective of all one’s choices, but particularly the relationship choices. As Bruce so clearly states, his lover Bob can’t give him children, or a normal life, and that is something he feels is missing for him, yet when he wants to marry Prudence, it is despite his lack of feeling. For Bob, everyone is really gay anyway (a perspective I have a lot of sympathy for) and all relationships are faking something. In come the therapists, both of which clearly need more therapy than their patients, and who diagnose from an opinionated perspective. Under these circumstances getting married after long and careful consideration is as fraught and useless as getting married on a whim.
Director Johann Walraven directs Beyond Therapy straddling two worlds – the Durang early 80’s world of the therapy obsessed New Yorker and the very contemporary conversation questioning what is marriage, why do we marry and whom should we allow to marry? In a world where same-sex marriage is one of the hot topics, one could argue the value of marriage as a political institution has been asserted over its more ambiguous mythologies. This production of Beyond Therapy down plays the hyper-absurdity, leaving the narrative more open to an audience interpretation. In this way Walraven’s subtleties move the production from a question of the value of therapy, to one of marriage and choice. In the current climate this is the narrative in Durang’s play that asserts itself, allowing for a very interesting night of theatre, where there is plenty of red wine conversation to be had in the various Newtown bars later.
To support the direction, Martin Kinnane designed a rich, 1980’s style theatrical set, that still evokes a contemporary feel. Walraven directs dance-like set changes that work well with Kinnane’s lighting bringing the off-stage on-stage in a delightful manner that is consistent with Durang’s playful script. The cast are dressed similarly, with the 80’s in mind, but underplayed so as to easily move back and forth in time. At the pulsing heart of the show are Bruce (David Hooley) and Prudence (Rebecca Scott) as the pairing who shouldn’t be. Hooley’s Bruce is a cheerfully confused man, feeling all the more confident because of his contracting embarrassment at his own awkwardness. Scott’s Prudence is a great response to his confusion, her rising hysteria one of the funniest aspects of the show as we sympathise more and more with her desperation for something “normal” in the face of so much absurdity.
Nadia Townsend as Dr. Charlotte Wallace gives a stand out performance that gets funnier as she moves through her word association analysis of the world around her. She benefits enormously from the best written lines of the show, and takes full advantage of the opportunity Durang has given her. If she has the best part, then Andrew Johnston as Dr. Stuart Farmingham has one of the least developed by Durang and possibly the most dated. Although, Johnston does a credible job with his role, it’s only when we remember this is the Woody Allen era that we can get a grip on the idea of the therapist sleeping with all his patients. Still, Johnston has his one perfect line and takes full advantage of the small opportunities Durang has given him, managing to make a couple of his deliveries stand out moments in the show.
Jasper Whincop is a very funny Bob managing, despite a very heavy 80’s style gay-ness, to deliver beautifully enunciated sound so we are treated to a full engagement with Durang’s very funny words. One of the treats of this production is the proximity of the language, as every cast member delivers every line with great clarity. The cast is rounded out with Tel Benjamin as a mostly absent (and yet present) waiter who carries the brunt of those off-stage nuances, performed so beautifully. It’s a very well-chosen cast by Walraven and a joy to watch as they move through the eighty minutes that fly by like twenty.
Beyond Therapy is a great night at the theatre, that is a lot of fun, and still offers some interesting food for thought to munch over in your group after.