Bruce (Graham Pilato) meets Prudence (Mundy Spears) at a restaurant. It is their first date, and they are both nervous. They shake hands. Bruce gestures her to her seat, and sits down across from her. He looks into her eyes. They share a moment. “You have beautiful breasts,” he says, and the worst date in human history is on its way.
Beyond Therapy is Christopher Durang’s best play, and in Annapolis, the Bay Theatre Company is showing us why. Prudence is alone in a jungle of naked ids, including her lascivious therapist Stuart (Nigel Reed), Bruce, Bruce’s lover Bob (Peter Boyer) and Bruce’s therapist Mrs. Wallace (Janet Luby), whose aphasic loopyness masks a profound hostility to her patients and to…to everyone, really. (She keeps calling her patients “porpoises” and her secretary her “dirigible.”)
Durang is lampooning therapy, of course, but the play is much more ambitious than that. All storytelling is about people trying to overcome obstacles to achieve their objectives; in Beyond Therapy, the characters – aside from Prudence – will do anything in the world to achieve their objectives, which they don’t bother to disguise. Thus Bruce offhandedly observes that he expects the first date to end in sexual intercourse; Mrs. Wallace uses therapy sessions to talk about herself while she remains completely oblivious to her porpoises’ stories, and Stuart insists that if Prudence does not resume relations with him she will turn into a cat-loving old maid (this despite the fact that Stuart – um, let’s just say that if sex were music, Stuart would be playing the Minute Waltz in about fifteen seconds). This uninhibitedness is because they all are receiving or giving therapy – in which they learn, or have learned, to banish restraint and repression and just let everything flow, and to surrender to their instincts. Thus Beyond Therapy is a sort of comic Lord of the Flies.
Bruce, surrendering to his instincts, courts Prudence despite the fact that he’s living with Bob, his lover. (“Bob’s a little grumpy” over this, Bruce admits). But don’t worry about Bob; he can take care of himself. In fact, Bob – who has not had therapy yet – is a symphony of manipulation, getting his harridan of a mother (“She’s a little like Auntie Mame,” Bruce explains) to yell at Bruce and Prudence. This, of course, compels Bruce to hustle Bob over for a session with Mrs. Wallace, where Bob learns to be even more uninhibited, if you can imagine such a thing.
Thus therapied, the characters move on to the war of all against all, with poor Prudence condemned to make sense of this very bad behavior. The superb Reed (who was so good in the company’s production of Mauritius) and Luby (who is also the company’s Artistic Director) bestow their self-absorbed therapists with the patina of self-righteousness stereotypical of the type, and Pilato’s Bruce and Boyer’s Bob seem like therapists-in-training, who need only to master the lingo of psychobabble in order to grace their selfishness with authority. These actors (including Alex Vaughan, who has a brief turn as a waiter) not only play these characters beautifully, they play them in perhaps the only way they can be convincingly played. With all the actors not only on the same page but on the right page, justice requires that we credit director Richard Pilcher.
But this is more than a terrific play, fabulously done. It’s also a coming-out party of sorts for Mundy Spears, who in this production establishes herself as a first-rate actor. Spears has done good work at Venus Theater, American Century, Spooky Action and Washington Shakespeare before, but here she has essayed something marvelous: sustaining our attention as a civilized protagonist dropped in among the savages. Prudence must engage our sympathy even though we don’t understand why she doesn’t leave these awful people immediately. She must swing from lovestruck wonder to suppurating rage, from horror to compliance within seconds; it falls upon her to make Durang’s implausible story plausible. Spears accomplishes all of this with seeming ease.
I cannot leave this subject without making note of Ken Sheats’ fabulous sets. Sheats, who has quietly established himself as one of the area’s best set designers, here constructs four very witty sets (I dare you to look at Stuart’s office without laughing) which fly on and off Bay’s cramped, tiny stage with amazing facility. Watching the amazing transformation from restaurant to office to apartment is more than adequate compensation for the somewhat longer-than-usual scene changes.
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Richard Pilcher
Produced by Bay Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes, with one intermission