October 24, 2002

Betty's Summer Vacation

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The partial standing ovation at the end of the show was, perhaps, the most interesting observation of the night. After all, the rapturous applause by some and the hesitant claps by others underlines what playwright, Christopher Durang expected from his audience.

Not that the performance was a poor one; by all means, the Cornell Theatre Department’s presentation of Betty’s Summer Vacation is a showcase of actors who understand their play inside out.

But the question of whether or not the fulfillment of the playwright’s expectations makes the play a success remains.

The play sets a number of stereotypical characters in a summerhouse on the beach. Betty, a young lady and the play’s most realistic character serves as moralist to her peculiar array of housemates: Trudy, an abused child with overdramatic tendencies; Mrs. Siezmagraff, Trudy’s mother and an alcoholic; Keith, an apprehensive serial killer; and Buck, a testosterone-filled pervert.

As their summer vacation begins they notice another tenant in their house. A series of voices that laugh and comment on their actions interacts with the characters. At first this seems odd to the housemates but they soon accept it as commonplace.

It quickly becomes clear that the voices are in fact a metaphoric portrayal of the public majority. Or as the program would suggest, an American viewing public that desires all things controversial.

Durang’s script uses melodrama to discuss rape, incest, and murder so that such volatile issues can in fact be addressed. For example, Mrs. Siezmagraff shrugs off the fact that Keith has a collection of body parts in his room and dismisses her late husband’s rape of their daughter as a mere drunken escapade.

However, the voices become increasingly frustrated as instances of such things become less frequent. Instead of just laughing at the perverse goings on of the house, they start to provoke the housemates into doing progressively worse things. At first they desire Betty (Lauren Wells) to be shocked again by a frozen penis in the freezer but later go as far as asking Buck to rape Keith!

Shocking? Yes, but only to some of the audience. Conversely, much of the audience accepted the characters’ melodrama and laughed at the situation’s ridiculous extremity.

This divide in the audience is exactly what Durang had expected. An old interview* with the playwright is filled with statements of how he is aware that some people can accept serious topics being discussed comically and how others cannot.

In this sense, the performance is a five star one. Director Stephen Cole mobilizes all such ideas in his interpretation of the script — this is evident from the mixed reaction of the crowd. The actors too perform their roles perfectly, each accepting his or her function as archetype as opposed to a real person, and each sustaining the strenuous vigor of melodramatic acting throughout.

Individual performances that particularly stand out are that of Ben Appelbaum’s amalgamation of Johnny Bravo and American Pie’s Stiffler in the role of Buck. Appelbaum stretches the limits of cheesiness and thinks with his crotch as if he were genius of the field.

Jan Rogge (Mrs. Siezmagraff) provides the show’s most admirable individual moment as she acts out the scene of a complete courtroom in an astonishingly fast-paced, multi-character monologue that leaves even the audience gasping for breath. It could be said that the cast has successfully done its side of things with Betty’s Summer Vacation. However, despite Durang’s awareness of his style (he also uses comedy with serious issues in other plays) he perhaps is overly didactic to the point if it having a negative effect. What makes a great didactic playwright is one who is completely conscious of the lessons his/her script possesses yet implements them in a way that is not glaringly obvious; a way that leaves much to the deciphering of the audience member. We learn best when an issue is brought to our attention and we are able to think about it constructively.

Betty’s Summer Vacation ultimately lays it all out on the table. The voices in the house literally tell us the social realism being presented. It could be argued that the humor doesn’t positively allow us to view our social ills, but rather negatively allows us to overlook them. It is the same scenario as a racist joke: however terrible the subject at hand people laugh whilst simultaneously stating “man, that’s awful.” The sheer fact they are “jokes” and that they are continuously retold underlines how the method of bringing humor to a serious subject is a questionable method for improving our ways.

Archived article by Tom Britton