By D. A. Blackburn
Playwright Christopher Durang is not Oliver Stone. He IS darkly funny, conscious of societal forces and able to dissect morbid subject matter with laughter. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Durang’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” if not wholly after Stone’s heart, ventures a seductive wink toward the filmmaker.
Like Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” “Betty” is a comedic statement against our cultural fascination with sex and violence. Also like the film, it draws on the psychological impacts of abuse and molestation as justifications, or rather, entryways into violent behavior. Unfortunately, “Betty” doesn’t make her point nearly as powerfully as Mickey and Mallory Knox. In fact, this shortfall was clear even to Durang himself, as he saw fit to reference Stone and “Natural Born Killers” in the play to drive the theme home.
“Betty’s Summer Vacation” may not live up to its full potential as a social commentary, but in Who Wants Cake? Theatre’s current production, it succeeds as a hilarious comedy, with all the subtlety of a beheading.
This success rides squarely on the shoulders of a talented and superbly funny cast. Betty, played by Melissa Beckwith, serves as the show’s lone voice of reason – a city dweller on holiday, in search of peace in a tumultuous existence. She has, however, chosen to spend her vacation with an exceptionally gregarious friend, Trudy (Jamie Warrow), and a handful of strangers, in a rented beach house.
Trudy’s mother (Joe Bailey) is the owner of the home – a recent widow in complete denial about the alcoholism, abuse and incest that has plagued her family and alienated her daughter. She has rented rooms to two additional guests – Buck (Jon Ager), an oversexed frat boy, and Keith (Chad Hetzel), a quiet serial killer with a collection of severed heads and a knack for deadpan comedy.
All find themselves tormented by a collective of voices (Daniel Brengel, Audra Lord and Tony Gross) who serve as a sort of public consciousness and encouragement to madness.
Betty’s search for serenity in the company of her outrageous housemates provides plenty of adults-only punch lines, and the cast proves itself as adept at physical humor as it is with bawdy jokes. The vacation that unfolds is morbidly funny, and rather charming, even if weighed down by a weak message.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
‘Betty’s Summer Vacation’
Who Wants Cake? Theatre at The Ringwald, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Fri.-Mon., through Dec. 3. $10-$20. For information: 248-556-8581 or http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com