There are certain playwrights whose brilliance is transcendent. When it comes to staging one of their plays, the selection, venue or even language doesn’t matter. Factors like the director, artistry of the set design or budget size—these may change or even heighten the experience, but no matter the circumstances, the power of the play will shine through.
Christopher Durang is not one of these playwrights.
Durang, whose work is being showcased at the Desert Rose Playhouse in Durang in Shorts, a summer-long series of his short plays, is arguably brilliant in his own right. His wild sense of humor, however, is bizarre and sometimes baffling. Navigating the outrageous characters, erratic plot twists and hilariously over-the-top situations—the hallmarks of Durang—takes a deft hand. Sadly, Mix and Match Durang, Desert Rose’s latest installment of Durang in Shorts, lacks the adroitness necessary to handle the playwright's mercurial work, and the production suffers for it.
The show opens with “1-900-DESPERATE.” Gretchen is a pathetic thirtysomething alone on a Saturday night. In a fit of desperation, she calls a service she sees advertised on TV, aptly named 1-900-DESPERATE. She meets a strange cast of characters on the line: a vodka-swilling, lingerie-clad singleton pining for romance; a girl-power chick spouting clichés about why she doesn't need a man; and an 18-year-old boy named Scuzzy who creepily hits on Gretchen while inexplicably cutting pictures out of Maxim and stuffing them down his pants.
It's not entirely the company's fault that “DESPERATE” is the production’s weakest piece. The writing is misogynistic and the various stereotypes of single women—the sad sack in her sweatpants, the embarrassingly needy aging woman and the militant man-hater—are blatantly offensive. But the performance itself is weak as well. The actors are ill at ease on stage. Each performs a single, repetitive action that defines the character—doing yoga, say, or cutting out those pictures from Maxim—without any sense of character or intention. As a result, the play flounders and the audience is left wondering what the point is to all this weirdness.
The following three plays, “Gym Teacher,” “DMV Tyrant” and “Funeral Parlor,” are worlds stronger than the show's opener. Joshua Ball gives the night’s standout performance as the insane gym teacher. Still, each short falls victim to the same problem: The jokes are repeated until they become flat and redundant. The ludicrously and idiotically unhelpful attendant in “DMV” is funny, for example, but what would make the play compelling is watching a real person deal with a frustrating situation blown to absurd proportions. Mix and Match’s company misses the subtlety and nuance that bring humanity to the story, and instead plays the joke on a surface level.
“Naomi in the Living Room,” the final piece, is the strongest and most enjoyable in the bunch. The story involves a young man who brings his wife to visit his deranged, volatile mother, and Margie Maes does well as crazy Naomi. It would be easy to give the mother’s over-the-top antics an unpleasant, screechy energy, but Maes sidesteps and explores different levels that make the character exciting and unpredictable.
Despite the strength of the acting, however, the difficulties endemic to properly staging Durang are never more apparent than in “Naomi.” The play is silly and outrageous, and at the same time it hints at some of the darkest corners of human existence, of mental illness and unspeakable tragedy. But, here again, this production operates on a surface level, and the gritty reality underpinning it is lost.
Superficial treatment of the work is the overarching problem plaguing Mix and Match Durang. Little things, from awkward silence during scene changes, to the choice of pre- and post-show music, to the rhythm of the curtain call, are routinely overlooked. The company gives an energetic and genuine performance, but I hope when it comes to the next and final installment in Desert Rose’s summer of Durang, it will take a deeper look.