By Martin F. Kohn
The big black inkblots on the bright white backdrop in Detroit Ensemble Theatre’s “Beyond Therapy” look like…well, what do you think they look like?
Don’t spend too much time trying to puzzle it out. The Rorschach test, courtesy of set designer Barton Bund, could provide a distraction in case things get slow, but Kate Peckham’s staging, executed by actors who have obvious relish for Christopher Durang’s episodic comedy, allows little chance for that.
Written and set in the 1980s (although it takes a while to realize it), the play bears a certain resemblance to another funny holdover from back then: David Letterman’s Top 10 list. This one might be called “Top 10 Signs That Your Therapist Needs a Therapist More Than You Do.” Number 1: She holds a stuffed Snoopy in her lap and goes “Ruff ruff ruff!” by way of affirmation. Number 2: He begins an affair with you after your second session. Number 3: She is unable to remember simple but important words like “patient” or “secretary,” as in, “Send in the next porpoise.”
Sonja Marquis and Stephen Blackwell play the therapists, Charlotte and Stuart, with suitably different styles of crazy. Marquis is unrelentingly cheerful and effusive (“Ruff ruff ruff!”). Blackwell doesn’t walk, he swaggers, and if he were any more full of himself he would explode.
Neither one seriously listens to their respective porpoises – uh, patients, Bruce and Prudence. The latter are a couple who first meet in a restaurant after Prudence (Annabelle Young) answers Bruce’s (Peter Prouty) personal ad. They do not hit it off. Her problem is that she tends to jump into lousy relationships; she might as well be called Imprudence.
His problem is that he’s uncertain of his sexual orientation. For starters, he lives with his boyfriend, Bob (Joe Plambeck), whom we’ll meet later.
After this disaster of a first date, each goes running off to his or her therapist – Bruce to Charlotte, Prudence to Stuart – and things only get funnier from there.
In both Prouty and Young’s performances, perpetual confusion and eternal hope appear to be in everlasting co-existence and conflict. As caricatured as they are, they are decent souls and the audience never stops rooting for them. The same goes for Bob, whom Plambeck fills in nicely, sometimes only with his eyes.
While the first act dazzles, the second act loses focus, something Durang attempts to compensate for by throwing everyone together in a climactic scene. Nobody short of the Marx Brothers could pull it off, although Peckham and company do their best to make it a madcamp romp.
As noted earlier, the play is a creation of the 1980s, but it takes awhile to figure that out. There are no fashion shortcuts to the 1980s the way there are for the 1950s or ’60s. Dressed as they are, none of the characters would raise an eyebrow today in downtown Ferndale.
Thus, the first 1980s pop culture reference seems anachronistic. As they pile up – “Three’s Company,” serial killer David Berkowitz, “Equus,” the advertising slogan “Reach out and touch someone” – you get the idea, but they make the play seem quaint. This is unfortunate, because the satire holds up, even if the references don’t.
Interestingly, the song that stands as metaphor for what Bruce and Prudence want out of life holds up very well. Neither one knows the words, except for its signature line: “Someone to watch over me.” It’s from the 1920s.
The Detroit Ensemble Theatre at Michigan Actors Studio, 648 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale. Friday-Sunday through June 3. 110 minutes. $18. 877-636-3320. http://www.detroitensembletheatre.org