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Betty’s Summer Vacation

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 4/6/2005

By Christopher Durang

At the Top Floor through April 9

Since its 1999 premiere at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, Christopher Durang’s naughty sitcom satire has become a popular choice of undergraduate theater productions, its mix of outrageous low comedy and smirking social commentary a heady thrill for pre-adults everywhere. Betty’s Summer Vacation is also an obvious choice for Hamilton’s Company 13, composed largely of recent Towson University graduates, whose motto is “Young. Brash. Unafraid. Theatre. ” A bit too obvious, though like the play itself, not without its rewards.

Betty’s (Dana Peterson, pictured) plans for a relaxing vacation appear increasingly less likely with the entrance of each obnoxious roommate at her summer share house. There’s chatterbox Trudy (Jayne Kennedy), sex-crazed surfer guy Buck (Zak Jeffries), creepy Keith (Aaron White), and insane landlord Mrs. Seizmagraff (Bradley Burgess-Donaleski). Durang hews to the sitcom formula of ever-tangled situations between ever-wacky characters, then exaggerates them for parodic effect. It turns out Trudy is Mrs. Seizmagraff’s estranged daughter—which is explained by the mother’s blasé reaction to Trudy’s rape by Mr. Vanislaw (Chris Poverman), a flasher dragged in off the beach. Trudy turns for comfort to fellow childhood-molestation victim Keith, who turns out to be a serial killer, and the two take turns avenging their victimhood on other people’s manhood, which explains the severed penis in the fridge.

Chuckling along with the audience are The Voices in the ceiling, who start out as a sitcom laugh track, but evolve into a bona fide character demanding ever more outrageous episodes from the characters onstage.

Durang has said his satirical target here is the “tabloid-ization” of America during the 1990s, but director Jamie Sinsz and set designer Lynne Twining set their sights 20 years earlier, on the Three’s Company era. The avocado-and-orange living room décor adds a clever touch of sweet nostalgia that tempers the crudity of the parody.

The first act is brisk and often wickedly funny, and the biggest laughs belong to Jeffries and Burgess-Donaleski, who both possess a true talent for comic timing (and the latter also a genius for drag). But when The Voices take over the action in the second act and transform into a heavy-handed Greek chorus, the play transforms into a pedantic bore (apart from a brilliant one-person Court TV monologue by Mrs. Seizmagraff). The other actors are only as funny as their lines, which makes things especially difficult for Dana Peterson, whose title character is the sole representative of humanity in this bestial pop-culture zoo. Like Durang, she never quite finds her voice, and like the play, ends up more annoying than interesting.

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