Durang-Utans and Other Species of the Male
Two recent productions look at why men cannot satisfy women - or themselves
By Richard Lord
There are some inexplicable mysteries that the human mind should probably not even try to fathom. For me as a theatre critic, one of these mysteries is how Christopher Durang ever became such a darling of the New York cultural scene. Durang's plays were hugely lauded, awarded prestigious prizes; he was feted, invited to the right parties, probably hung out at the Hamptons – the whole celebrity treatment.
"But why?" I still ask myself. Durang's comedies are usually in the satiric vein, raking over the foibles of contemporary American society, and/or literature and film. The problem is they are not very good satire: Durang's standard modus operandi is to take an obvious target, then whack it broadside. Rather than using the standard satirical weapons of the scalpel and the readily concealed bludgeon, Durang much favours the hacksaw and the baseball bat.
His characters are not simply easy targets. They are often strapped up to a whipping post so that Durang can flog them without much effort. And when viewing or reading a Durang play, I usually get this uneasy sense of Durang himself lurking in the background, a smug smirk on his face. Come to think of it, his plays are actually a slapdash cocktail of satire, farce, screwball comedy, a guide to the psychologically disturbed and Trivial Pursuit.
In other words, it is safe to say that I am not one of Durang's biggest fans. Indeed, there are only a few of this prolific writer's works that I find even mildly enjoyable, let alone praiseworthy. Fortunately, one of these is Beyond Therapy, which Tabby Cat Theatre recently brought to Singapore for its local debut.
That does not mean you should expect anything like subtlety or deep insight in Beyond Therapy; Durang does not do depth and subtlety. But here his slash-and-bash approach works fairly well as the humour is sharp and some of the characters remain almost believable for long stretches.
However, Durang devotees would not be at all disappointed with Beyond Therapy, which remains a conspicuously 'Durang' comedy. The prolific playwright has his signature items all over it. For instance, he tucks a spate of insider jokes into the text, all presumably dispensed/furnished/delivered with a knowing wink to friends and admirers throughout the New York-New Haven-Boston axis. (One quick example: The restaurant where several key scenes occur is offering a daily special of 'Chicken Marsala in White Wine and Garlic.' Now the culturally cognoscenti who go for Durang would immediately click on to the fact that as Marsala is a sweetish, dark Italian fortified wine, you would never add white wine to such a dish - unless you were either following or satirising the overkill cuisine practiced in the 80s by cutting-edge chefs all along the axis.)
The action centres on a couple, Bruce and Prudence, who connect via a newspaper contact ad, meet for a disastrous dinner date, then run off to their respective therapists for a post-mort on that disaster. In the next scene, they meet again on another blind date occasioned by another contact ad. (They are unaware at this point that they are the same people.) This date goes a little better and pretty soon they're pursuing a relationship, though they are so obviously a mismatch, their dates belong on Fear Factor.
It turns out that Bruce is bisexual and still lives with his quasi-estranged lover Bob. Not exactly what Prudence, herself rather screwed up, needs at this point. On his side, Bob deeply resents the fact that Bruce is determined to build a conventional hetero life for himself. And the two therapists of the brave couple are more loopy than anyone else in the ensemble.
Durang loves to take his satirical flame-thrower to targets like psychotherapy and perfectly incompatible couples (or, as here, triangles.) Bruce's determined pursuit of the improbable (his dream of happiness is enjoying marital bliss with Prudence while Bob lives in a room above the garage in their home) takes on the desperate imprudence of Prudence as the action picks up manic pace. The whole thing goes predictably awry, and Durang makes sure it is an absolute mess when it does.
As a playwright, Durang is something like a World War I trench commander: he feels the only way to advance is over the top. But the humour in Beyond Therapy is often good. (When Bruce reveals his bisexuality to Prudence, he says, "I swing both ways. Don't you?" Her response: "I don't know; I always insist on turning the lights off.) Even when the humour is bad, it is good bad humour. Moreover, here he seems to like his characters enough to see that they do not get too badly burnt or disfigured in his satirical fire.
The Tabby Cat Theatre treatment of this play, competently directed by Brain Seward, was fairly enjoyable, though nowhere near as strong as it might have been with a crack team. For one thing, there was a certain weakness or slackness right at the middle, in the lopsided triangle. David Stewart was significantly better here as Bruce than he was as Jack Absolute in the Stage Club's recent The Rivals, fitting much more confidently into the role of a neurotic 20th century New York yuppie than an 18th century English aristocrat. He still has a tendency to rush his lines, though here he did seem interested in what they were expressing. And the character could certainly have been focused more sharply: Stewart needed to turn up the neuroses a few notches to bring out the full darkness of Durang's humour and keep his scenes vibrant.
Chio Su-Ping was also not totally convincing in her portrayal of Prudence, moving in and out of the appropriate emotional range. (Though she proved quite good with exasperation.) Also, a crisper delivery from Chio would have made many of Prudence's lines even funnier. Still, she did put a lot of energy into the character and her Prudence certainly made her mark in all her scenes.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Samuel's Bob Lansky provided a decent emotional balance but relied too much on clichéd notions of gayness. (This was New York in the 1970's, for Chrissake, when most with-it gays were doing their best to duck well-trod stereotypes.) Samuel's swishy Bob drew cheap laughs, but there were richer laughs to be found there had he chosen to dig a little more deeply for them.
The two key supporting roles, the couple's therapists, were the strong points in this show. Dr. Stuart Framingham is a role best suited for a priapic Groucho Marx; in these parts, Sean Yeo is a reasonable substitute. Yeo was convincing as the raving incompetent who measures his therapeutic successes by the number of female patients he can bed. (Prudence was, of course, one of these.) Yeo's plastic facial features and comic voice always poised on the threshold of a squawk both fit nicely into this part.
However, the best performance of the evening belonged, hands down, to Fanny Kee as the totally wonky female therapist, Charlotte Wallace. Kee went at the role like a manic missionary determined to spread her plan of salvation and malapropisms wherever she could. Kee also pulled off a tricky feat - she managed to keep Wallace utterly comic while occasionally weaving sexual allure into the portrayal, a mix which gave Wallace a dimension the role often does not even try for.
Neither the set nor the lighting was remarkable or damnable; they did their jobs modestly and let the actors do the rest.
If Beyond Therapy was thoroughly American, Oh Man! was Singaporean down to its last quirk and shudder. A product of Singapore's much-honoured Necessary Stage company, Oh Man! set out to do what the Necessary Stage does best: offer a professional version of community theatre.
In this case, the TNS senior resident playwright Haresh Sharma teamed up with director Sean Tobin and gathered together interviews with various men (mainly straight) in the community about their fears, aspirations, etcetera, et cetera. These interviews were reworked over a long workshopping process with the cast, then spliced together into a collection of skits, songs and monologues to give a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Singaporean male, 2003 vintage. The result was a quite enjoyable show, just as long as you didn't mind the superficiality.
True, the extensive programme notes detailing the inspiration and incubation period for the show claim to set Oh Man!'s sights much higher. But if we ignore those notes, we can judge the show on less exacting criteria - that of revue sketches strung together around a common theme. And whoever said that revue sketches were repositories of profound insights or the platform for thorough examinations of character?
This is not to say that the show should not come in for any criticism. To be sure, it would have been even more enjoyable had certain vignettes been extended and others just dropped. A prime candidate for the latter treatment would be the 'Ten Things' lists that are interspersed throughout the revue (i.e., '10 Things That Men Can't Do'). This top ten device has been done to death and beyond; in recent years, it seems to have become a staple of stand-up comedy. If a theatre company is going to haul out this creaky device for a big-stage show, their lists must be extremely clever or serve some significant purpose other than just offering a break between more interesting material. Oh Man!'s lists did neither. (Filling the gaps with some additional songs would have been a far better strategy, I would think.)
Also, the material could have been better arranged to get more of a rhythm, a clear development. As it was, the show had a few pieces, which seemed like splendid closers, but it then went on anticlimactically for another 15 minutes or so. Overall, there seems to have been no discernible reason why many of the bits were placed where they were; it was, indeed, a kaleidoscopic approach where the next twist and turn produced something completely new, often unrelated, to what had come just before.
Any sort of revue like this needs strong performing talents to make it work, and this is where Oh Man! profited handsomely from its cast selection. If I had to choose one of the fine performers as the best, it would have to be Sheikh Haikel, who proved himself both a stage dynamo and a certified multi-talent. Haikel repeatedly displayed beautiful timing in his many comic bits and emotional depth in the revue's more serious moments. Plus, his singing talents were flaunted most convincingly in an original song about his young daughter. (Okay, the repetitive lyrics dripped saccharine all over the stage, but that's a standard product defect with this kind of song.) In fact, a couple of those 'ten things' lists actually succeeded primarily because of Haikel's handling of them.
Another huge plus point for this show was Micheas Chan. Chan handled all his comic parts quite well, and proved particularly good in two serious sketches: as a man looking back over his relationship with his now dearly departed dog, and as a young gay man painfully coming out to his convention-bound father, trying not so much to explain himself as to reconnect himself with the older man.
Lim Kay Tong, who has now acquired the position of eminence grise amongst Singapore actors, was also quite strong, and probably could have been more so had he been given some more range to explore. Having done reasonably well with the few comic bits he was assigned, Lim delivered his best work when emotional depth was called for. For instance, Lim played the straight man wounded by his son's admission that he is gay and was one-half of this bit's neatly compressed power. (Chan, of course, being the other half.) Indeed, one of the show's most moving moments came when this father waited until the son had left before reaching into a hidden pocket reserve of emotions to say, with much conviction, "You'll always be my son."
Kumar, who is both Singapore's most famous drag queen star and its grand-mistress of stand-up, was once again Kumar, and you cannot go too wrong with that when you're putting together a loosely-structured comic show. However, he was not given much to prove himself in the realm of serious acting.
Randall Tan served as engaging eye candy for anyone in the audience interested, and did carry his weight in the lighter skits. But Tan's acting deficits weakened a number of important scenes where he was called upon to show anything more than superficial performance skills.
Ten-year old Nicholas Tee, on the other hand, was quite impressive in his acting debut on the professional stage, showing aplomb and solid talent in a small range of roles. From what he displayed here, Singapore should hope that young Tee continues on his acting path.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004