About halfway through the second act of Christopher Durang's wildly funny Betty's Summer Vacation, a couple of electric saws appear out of nowhere and hack a giant hole into the back wall of the stage set. From that jagged fissure shoots a huge slide, down which come tumbling a trio of theretofore unseen characters who take over the remainder of the play, which is so beautifully written and so dang hilarious, I found myself wishing I were watching a decent production of the show, rather than the horrible mishmash that Nearly Naked Theatre is offering up this month.
Would that artistic director Damon Dering had been on hand to steer this woeful production of a wonderful play. Dering made a brief appearance on opening night, tied to a desk chair in a brief skit that replaced his usual curtain speech and which turned out to be the high point of an otherwise wasted evening.
The rest of the night was taken up with mugging and shouting and enough indicating (note to Betty's cast: that's an acting term) to fill a barn. In an attempt to capture Durang's broad, deeply satiric style, the actors flounder literally. They flop around as if they're boneless, reciting Durang's dialogue at top volume, each of their faces plastered with a broad smile the whole time. Director Tim Shawver appears to have told his underprepared cast, "It'll be funnier if you smirk the whole time you're out there," and the effect is a self-conscious smugness that sucks every ounce of humor out of Durang's curious commentary on the poisons of pop culture.
Betty's Summer Vacation
Phoenix Theatre's Little Theater, 100 East McDowell Road
Continues through March 10. Call 602-254-2151.
Durang wants us to cringe at the horrors of suburban America while laughing at how we've devolved as a society. Betty and her pals are classic Durang characters, caught in a surrealist world where a summer time-share, whose landlady is a narcissistic sleazeball who picks up transients, and whose heroine is Gidget gone berserk, comes complete with its own laugh track and serial killer. Betty is intended as a commentary on reality television and how we've learned to find entertainment in the plights of others, but, in its Nearly Naked incarnation, it's played too broadly and with so much self-satisfaction (Look at me, Mom! I'm darkly comic!) that the show teeters, then falls on its fat little face.
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Shame on Nearly Naked for bungling this comic masterpiece, and shame on me for forgetting to check my high expectations at the door. While this company has soared in the past with macabre comedies like this one, they've this time crashed in a sodden heap into a Vacation not worth taking.