Onstage: Off-Kilter

New Edgecliff's Durang(o) has some hysterical moments

Nov 8, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Michael Shooner

Pamela Schooner and Andrew Bernhard star in NET's Durang(o).

I arrived a bit late for New Edgecliff Theatre's current production of three short plays by satirist Christopher Durang. (Lest you do the same, please note that NET has shifted its curtain time to 7:30 p.m. for all performances.) This was not a good move for many reasons, but as I slipped into a seat near the entrance to Columbia Performance Center's theater space, it struck me as especially risky given that The Actor's Nightmare was being performed.

It's about an accountant who finds himself onstage in a spiraling, existential nightmare of theatrical productions in which he's playing roles for which he's completely unprepared. My familiarity with the script made it less challenging to follow why actor Greg Hillner, dressed in an Elizabethan doublet, was evincing frustration and terror as Devon Campailla exasperatedly tries to engage him in a dialogue that's clearly from Noel Coward's 1930 comedy, Private Lives. But in an irrational moment, I wondered if I might personally get dragged into the scene. That didn't happen, but Durang's off-kilter pieces inspire that kind of thought.

Nightmare (which is entertaining but has an unexpectedly dire finale) was followed by For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, a dead-on parody of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, with several amusing twists. Instead of Laura, who collects glass animals, this version features Lawrence (played with erratic verve by Andrew Bernhard), who collects glass cocktail stirs which he identifies with bizarrely affectionate but mundane names like "Q-Tip and "Thermometer." Southern Belle features Pamela Shooner as Amanda the mother, a caricatured reflection of Williams' domineering character.

In this version the "gentleman caller" (Campailla) becomes a loudmouthed lesbian, and brother Tom (Hillner) is just about as alienated as his inspiration, although certainly not as sensitive.

Following an intermission, the evening is completed with 'Dentity Crisis, an odd piece about Jane, played by Erin McCamley, a depressed young woman who has attempted suicide because she can't cope with her bizarre family. McCamley's character is treated as though she's the crazy one, but there's not a soul in this oddball piece who is what he or she seems to be at first glance. (Mother, played by Campailla, claims to have invented cheese early in the 20th century.)

'Dentity Crisis offers some of the evening's best comic writing; watching Bernhard flip back and forth between the twisted son, his stodgy father, the deaf grandfather and an exaggerated French lover in one scene is especially astonishing and amusing. But the piece (and as a result, the evening) ends flatly with a scene of psychobabble, which Durang surely wrote to be amusing but comes across in this production as too earnest. And then there's an odd musical finale that differs tonally from the rest of the piece.

That's the challenge of staging Durang's works: They're very stylized, but require moments of normalcy to allow the odd humor to burst forth. Balancing between those poles can be tough. Director Nathan Gabriel has assembled five able cast members (Amy Harpring is the fifth, as another overbearing player in Nightmare and a gender-changed counselor in Crisis) who present moments of hysterical humor: Hillner is a delight to watch as the baffled accountant in Nightmare, and Bernhard shows genuine versatility and range as the maladjusted son in Southern Belle and a revolving door of male characters in Crisis.

But despite these fine performances, this "evening" feels fragmented and stylistically uneven: Parody is harder to pull off than straight comedy; these performances take a good run at it but don't entirely succeed.

NET has had a recent change in artistic leadership and seems to be moving in the direction of memorable but edgy classic plays (works by Athol Fugard and Sam Shephard will be presented later this season). They're casting these productions with excellent talent, but such plays will require tighter execution than An Evening in Durang(o). Grade: B-

AN EVENING IN DURANG(O), presented by New Edgecliff Theatre, continues through Nov. 18.