''Beyond Therapy'' by Christopher Durang.
Directed by Garrett Zuercher for New York Deaf Theatre at the Actor's Theatre Workshop,
145 W. 28 Street, 3 floor, NYC
May 2-20, 2007. Fri/Sat at 8; Sun. at 1 & 7 PM.
Tickets: $25. SmartTix (212) 868-4444
by Glenda Frank
''Beyond Therapy,'' Christopher Durang's satire on blind dating and way-out psychotherapy, has a right to feel a little creaky in the joints. It premiered in 1980 to resounding applause and two years later moved to Broadway for a disappointing 21 performances. It's hard to know what went wrong. Durang revivals have been surfacing here and there this season – ''The Vietnamization of New Jersey,'' ''Adrift in Macao,'' ''Laughing Wild'' – but few have emerged with their dark humor fully burnished and ready to take on all comers. The production by the New York Deaf Theatre is the exception -- an over-the-top delight, and some of that has to do with the signing.
It takes only a little imagination to picture Bruce (Christopher Tester) and Prudence (Hillary Baack) connecting online rather than through the personal ads in a newspaper.
The opening scenario is familiar – a small restaurant, the slow waiter, the uneasy pauses as two strangers struggle to make conversation. The uptight Prudence in her black sheath and pearls has become formulaic, but Bruce is a surprise. He is at once appealing, agitated and totally inappropriate – as though he has lost all social inhibitions. He likes her breasts and blurts it out. He wants to marry her, have children, and settle his male lover in an apartment over their garage. He cries. And she has to deal with this. Nice, nice.
Like any sensible urban single, Prudence takes just so much, tosses a glass of water in Bruce's direction, is doused in turn, and departs. When she answers his second personal ad – in which, with the approval of his therapist, he alters facts – their meeting begins to seem more like destiny than coincidence. He is still inappropriate, but the comedy deepens into human longing and we are drawn in. The genius of this second meeting is how they really connect. The bond reaches a comic apotheosis in the Betsy Drake-Cary Grant duet that they sing. But then he barks at her and seems more maniacal than moonstruck. By the time Bob, Bruce's lover, enters the picture, it's a toss up between mayhem, madness, and the poignancy of people fumbling (badly) toward a better life.
Which introduces the other half of the comedy, the eccentric therapists. Stuart, Prudence's shrink, is possessive, manipulative, exploitative, and, as played by Aaron Kubey, very sexy and funny. It's hard to believe he is accredited – or even trained, but it's totally in keeping with Prudence's character that she stays, even after their brief, unsatisfactory (and unethical) affair.
The motherly Mrs.Wallace (Anne Tomasetti) with bright red hair, Bruce's counselor, emerges as the highly flawed hero of the evening. Not only can't she remember her patients, she can't recall the names of her three husbands and calls them uniformly Mr. Wallace. She may confuse words (''porpoise'' for ''patient,'' ) and talk to her stuffed Snoopy, but she believes in honest, intuitive reactions, wherever they lead and she guides her patients toward discovering what will make them happy. Maybe she goes too far when she applauds Bob for shooting her (with a starter's pistol), but it's a comedy.
This back-and-forth action between the neurotic lovers, the individual lovers and their therapists, and gay and straight characters keeps the play enough off-kilter to make it lively, and director Garrett Zuercher has his gifted cast play it in both large and delicate gestures so that the comedy never swallows the human dilemma at the heart of the play. Even the deafness of the players is serendipitous. A speaking couple (Zachary Linnert and Caroline Burrows), who voice the dialogue for the hearing audience, sit at another table in the restaurant – and later on the sidelines behind a screen – as though they were mirror images of the signing couple. They become a reminder that what we are seeing is magnified in multiple ways in the actual world right outside the theatre. The limits of the stage are breached. And as in the Deaf West Theatre production of ''Big River'' at the Roundabout a few years ago, the mute actors seem more intense, the signing more an expression of character and emotion than the conveyance of dialogue. New York Deaf Theatre's ''Beyond Therapy'' is the best Durang I've seen in a long while.