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Family values

Essential Theatre's Betty and Book reveal dark sides of Americana

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The dark comedy of Betty's Summer Vacation by Christopher Durang at first seems a world away from the small-town drama of Lanford Wilson's Book of Days. Highly accomplished but not flawless, the productions complement each other with surprising vigor as the first two plays in Essential Theatre's 2002 Festival of American Theatre.

Playing in repertory, both productions are directed by artistic director Peter Hardy and have likable casts with a few unpolished performances. Taken together, Betty and Book provide a portrait of the American masses so scalding, I'm a little leery of attending Essential's third show.

In Betty's Summer Vacation, the title character (Shellie Sims) provides the only voice of reason in a summer house full of kooks and weirdos. The play's first act unfolds like standard Durang fare, with exaggerated characters (like Mark Wallace's unnervingly bland potential serial killer), special rage at neglectful parents (represented by Patricia French's cheerfully oblivious Mrs. Seizmagraff) and disturbing moments like an off-stage rape.

You doubt the humor can recover from such an episode, but there's a method to the play's mania that Durang carefully cultivates. To the consternation of the guests, the beach house includes a TV-style laugh track, which becomes increasingly obtrusive and even begins addressing the residents. Betty gradually becomes a barbed satire on modern voyeuristic audiences and the court of public opinion. Turning the People's Choice Award into a hilarious punchline, Durang effectively skewers the '90s infantile hunger for sensationalism that made people like Lorena Bobbitt famous.

The main drawback of Betty stems from the Essential festival being produced at PushPush Theatre, which offers shows in the round. With its regard of audience relationships, Betty wants to be "flat," to present itself more like a sitcom stage. The format also gets in the way of some of the "sick" jokes -- in the round, they can't disguise that Jon D. Moor's deranged flasher is in fact wearing a body suit.

Book of Days takes place in the real world, not a satirical one, but Wilson's point is every bit as sharp. The play begins with the ensemble recounting various facts and events in a God-fearing Midwestern town, where Ruth (Len Hoch) is playing the title role in a production of Saint Joan and her husband Len (Brandon O'Dell), manager of the local cheese plant, is developing gourmet blends of provolone and cheddar. When the couple discusses their passions and pursuits, the play has some achingly lyrical moments.

Tensions exist between the plant's wealthy owner (Morgan Lee) and his politically ambitious, ne'er-do-well son (Chris Pierce), while some residents view the visiting play director (Darren Marshall) with mistrust. The deep-seeded tensions between the secular and religious sides of community get thrown out of whack with a shocking -- and increasingly suspicious -- death at the end of Act One.

Wilson, author of plays like Tally's Folly and Burn This, superbly uses the smallest of details to create the textures of small-town life. What's maddening is that as the play progresses, every single religious character proves to be hypocritical, willfully blind or plainly evil. Wilson's concern over middle-American fundamentalism makes Book of Days almost hysterically didactic, with anyone who objects to profanity emerging as an Enemy to all that is Creative and True. Wilson may as well cue the Darth Vader music at any scene involving the local church or the highly educated Rev. Groves (Michael Van Osch).

Wilson stacks his deck against the good guys, and his scenes of amateur sleuthing are hard to swallow, but Book of Days nevertheless provides a gripping story, like watching the Moral Majority stage an unfriendly takeover of Our Town. Wilson looks at the heartland and finds that the "salt of the earth" either commit hateful deeds or turn blind eyes to those who do. For his part, Durang sees the mass American audience as little better than children, with unquenchable appetites for sex and violence.

Presumably, the coming-of-age play Warts, the third work in Essential's festival, doesn't have a comparably caustic point of view. But you can certainly say that Essential's plays take an unsparing look at the ugliest aspects of America, warts and all.

The 2002 Festival of New American Theatre plays through Feb. 3 at PushPush Theatre, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 3, Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Sun. at 3 and 7 p.m. $15 ($30 for all three). Call 404-892-7876.

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