Playwright Christopher Durang’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation” at the IU Theatre is a satiric polemic on the subject of reality TV and the public’s appetite for it. The production, directed by Howard Jensen, begins innocently enough as Betty, played by Allison Batty and her motor mouthed girlfriend Trudy, played by Tanaya Irene Hurst arrive for a sea side vacation. The set by Christopher Sinnott is of the common room and kitchen of a lovely, spacious, sun lit, time-share apartment. I could almost smell the salt air as the sound track served up the gentle sound of the surf. It could be that there was also the occasional cry of a seagull, but I may have added that on my own.
Betty seems a pale, non assertive, much put upon sort. Trudy is irritating enough, but playwright Durang has much more in store. An unlikely series of other guests arrive. There’s Jonathan Molitor as the shy Keith, who may or may not have a head in the closely guarded hatbox that he carries. Colin Donnell, as Buck the oversexed young, well “buck.” Mike Mauloff as Mr. Vanislaw, the derelict flasher. And Carmen Rae Meyers as Trudy’s mother and Auntie-Mame-style land lady.
The introduction of this wild crew drew a good many laughs and a few gasps at just how raw Christopher Durang thinks he needs to be to actually touch our jaded sensibilities. In the first few minutes of “Betty’s Summer Vacation” it became obvious that it wasn’t just the audience laughing. There was a television-style laugh track, sometimes in synch with the audience, but often a bit ahead. Curiously enough the characters in the play hear it and occasionally can get it to stop.
There’s considerable fun in the clever working in of all the weirdness of the first act of “Betty’s Summer Vacation.” In the second act things get a bit grimmer. There’s a brutal rape, revenge dismemberment with the dis’d member stuck in the refrigerator, a decapitation–make that two decapitations-and the more and more demanding involvement of the laugh track voices. While Christopher Durang initially has the audience see things through the innocent Betty, now it’s through the laugh track voices. As the play continues the voices beg, cajole and whine for action, reaction, retaliation and titillation. They’re a Jerry Springer audience on a feeding frenzy.
The trio of voices, Cody Girten, Lauren McCarthy and Scot Purkeypile, actually fall onto the set. For some audience members this was the wild over the top moment of the satire, but for me it was a great deal too much of what had been a good thing. Costume designer Linda Pisano realized the three as the surreal set of parts of a ceiling air conditioning duct.
Throughout “Betty’s’ Summer Vacation” the acting was solid, expressive and varied. At the curtain call Colin Donnell was clearly an audience favorite as the randy Buck and Carmen Rae Meyers drew the most applause for her simply magnificent performance as Mrs. Siezmagraff.
The IU Theatre’s production of Christopher Durang’s dark satire “Betty’s Summer Vacation” plays each evening through Saturday in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre.
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