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Sick Ticket

AXIS Offers a Lighthearted Farce About Rape and Incest

Bethany Brown and Larry Malkus in Betty's Summer Vacation

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 10/3/2001

Betty's Summer Vacation

Christopher Durang

Betty's Summer Vacation is revolting. It's a comedy about blood lust and the American public's tendency to consume others' misery for entertainment. Taking its theme from the popularity of Jerry Springer-style shows and the American people's fascination with the likes of Lorena Bobbitt and O.J. Simpson, Christopher Durang's Obie award-winning play satirizes these phenomena while simultaneously taking them to the extreme. The result is a self-reflexive nightmare in which rape scenes are played for laughs and a play that, while at times compelling, sinks into the genre it supposedly mocks.

Betty and her motor-mouthed friend Trudy have rented a share in a beach house for their summer vacation. Unfortunately, their plans for a relaxing holiday are ruined by their frightening housemates: Keith, an extreme introvert who may be chopping off peoples' heads and carrying them around in hat boxes; Buck, a self-proclaimed surfer dude who can't form a sentence on any topic besides sex; and Mrs. Siezmagraff, the owner of the beach house and, it turns out, Trudy's incredibly abusive, nymphomaniac mom.

Trudy, played by Mary Ann Walsh, is the play's whipping girl. Not only was she molested by her father as a child, but her mother is convinced she wanted it. And things just get worse for Trudy when her mother's new beau, a flasher named Mr. Vanislaw, rapes her while her mother does nothing. These may be the makings of a tragedy of Oedipal proportions, but Betty's Summer Vacation is a comedy. So while Trudy is being raped in the next room amid screams, slaps, and bedspring creaks, the audience is expected to laugh. One of the most frightening things about this scene is that many in the audience do.

To add to the strangeness, the house has its own laugh track. Betty, the beleaguered everywoman, is initially freaked out by the laughter coming from the ceiling, but she and the other housemates quickly become used to it. As the play goes on, the characters begin interacting with the voices, which in turn become more insistent, commenting on the action and even commanding the characters to do things for their entertainment.

Director Brian Klaas does an excellent job of building tension and keeping the action swift and surprising. The cast is equally energetic. Melissa-Leigh Douglass as Betty does a great job playing a sane person surrounded by insanity, Dana Whipkey makes serial killer Keith amazingly likable and sympathetic, and Bethany Brown displays boundless energy as the truly disturbed Mrs. Siezmagraff. Larry Malkus' Buck is disgusting and one-dimensional, but that's what he's supposed to be. And the voices, played by Rich Espy, Rhonda Carter, and Neal Freeman, switch back and forth between lighthearted fun and willies-inducing creepiness with ease.

The voices are intriguingly complex. When they first begin commenting on the action, they often seem more reasonable than the other characters in the play. After the rape scene, Mrs. Siezmagraff throws out a one-liner and is annoyed when the voices don't laugh. "We're disturbed," they respond in unison. "We don't feel like laughing." But as the play continues, they go from simply observing the action to fueling it, egging characters on to do horrible things while lightheartedly nominating them for People's Choice Awards. The voices manage to both have the funniest lines in the play and to be an incredibly disturbing force.

This tension between laughter and revulsion is what makes Betty's Summer Vacation so interesting, but it also creates a difficult web of self-reflexiveness. We are an audience watching an audience watch the play, making us the very thing we mock. Durang has created a situation in which if you enjoy the play, you are a tragedy-consuming leech. But if you don't enjoy it, in the words of the voices, "You are the sort of person The Waltons and Touched by an Angel are written and produced for."

It's an interesting dilemma. It's just a shame Durang took it so far. If he had created a cast of characters the audience could actually identify with instead of cartoons in outlandish situations, he could have written a play that would make people question their roles as both spectator and participant in the world of sensationalist media. Instead, he prods us to giggle as women are raped and laugh at jokes about incest. And it just isn't funny.

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