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Written and performed by Alyson Palmer, Amy Ziff, and Elizabeth Ziff
Directed by Sarah Bittenbender
Produced by Theater J
At the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center to April 3
April 3 is going to be a sad day for D.C. theatergoers: the day this weekend’s stage openers will close, leaving the city with no more BETTY, no more brotherly brawling, and no more Shavian civility (though that’s not my assignment this week) to distract from a looming tax day.
The wisest among us, having moved heaven and earth to get tickets to BETTY Rules and The Lonesome West, will still have memories, of course—revivifying recollections of psychologizing sisters and battling brothers to amuse and edify. We happy few, we band of surrogate siblings. (Can you tell the weekend left me in a good mood?)
Start with the brothers who, in Martin McDonagh’s hilariously bleak Irish comedy The Lonesome West, get to do all the heartless, cruel, nasty things that brothers have wanted to do to each other since Cain decided he wasn’t going to be Abel’s keeper. McDonagh has conjured a pair of brutish louts for the third play in his Leenane trilogy and, like the violence-prone folks in Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara, they’re enough to give pause to the heartiest believers in the human spirit, even those in the clergy.
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“I’m a terrible priest,” says the baby-faced, perpetually tipsy cleric (Dan Brick) who ministers to the boys. He’s known by his parishioners as Father Welsh-Walsh because no one in Leenane can be bothered to figure out which surname actually applies. And as that fact suggests, he hasn’t much sway over County Galway’s sinners. He already has two murderers in his parish who won’t confess to him. Coleman (Eric Lucas) makes three, having killed his father over an idle comment the old man made about hairstyles. That Coleman has a short fuse is obvious the moment anyone tries to strike up a conversation with him. That he also has a thick head is perhaps less evident at first, but he’ll prove it if given a moment to ruminate on, say, “levitating darkies” and their flying carpets.
Coleman’s brother, Valene (Mark A. Rhea), a collector of saint figurines and an all-around misfit, always gives him that moment—just time enough for Coleman to tie himself in knots—knowing that his brother’s temper will come to the fore soon enough. They’ve developed an intriguing rhythm, getting on each other’s nerves so easily that they can no longer conceive of talking without fighting. It hardly matters over what—a flirt named Girleen (Linda Murray) provides a ready pretext, but so does a drink—because it’s not the object of the fight but the fight itself that they live for.
Father Welsh-Walsh has made it his task to make them stop fighting, and he finally hits on a way to do that, albeit at great personal cost. Still, old habits die hard. Once the two brothers have vowed to get along, it’s a sure thing that they’ll find a way to turn apologizing into an extreme contact sport.
Director Robert McNamara’s program notes cite The Playboy of the Western World, Sean O’Casey, and the “stage-Irishman” stereotypes created by 19th-century playwright Dion Boucicault in explaining where McDonagh came up with these folks. But both the evening’s title and the Scena Theatre’s staging suggest that the real inspiration is Sam Shepard. The brogues may be thick, but the influence of the author of that brotherly slugfest True West is there in the insults (“Your sex appeal wouldn’t buy the phlegm off a dead frog”), in the physicality (headlocks and punches), and in the flung foodstuffs (bag after bag of crushed potato chips). The director even gets a laugh between scenes by having a stagehand sweep the post-fight debris under the couch, which is pretty much what the characters would do.
McNamara’s production is deftly cast; Rhea and Lucas are already masters of sibling sabotage after their various excursions into Shepard territory at the Keegan Theatre. Watch the glee with which they taunt each other over the bright-yellow stove that sits in their living room or the figurine infestation atop their fireplace. As their flummoxed pastor, Brick is a booze-addled hoot, aching for his parishioners to confide in him but horrified when they actually do. Playing a jokey Irish lass who flirts so incessantly that the object of her passion doesn’t take her seriously, Murray finds a haunted center hardly hinted at in the writing. Together they create a hermetically sealed world of violence and innocence—an Irish Eden—that they can milk for comedy enough for a month of St. Patrick’s Days.
BETTY does rule, in case there’s any doubt about the title of the autobiographical vehicle the D.C.-born trio has ridden back to its birthplace for a 20th-anniversary engagement. BETTY is Alyson Palmer and the Ziff sisters, Amy and Bitsy (who’s now calling herself Elizabeth), possessors of the tightest harmonies this side of the Roches and the funniest act this side of…well, let’s just call it the funniest.
BETTY Rules is subtitled “The Exception to the Musical,” but it fits pretty neatly into the off-Broadway niche previously inhabited by Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Like that plot-driven rock concert, BETTY Rules chronicles a musical rise to fame, in this case, from humble beginnings in the Ziff family’s Fairfax, Va., garage. “I only know one chord, but we wrote a song around it,” says Elizabeth at the outset of Alyson’s audition to join their sisterly girl group. Then they start blending voices in the ethereal harmonies that tend to make instant fans of anyone who hears them. Though the story proceeds chronologically from the 9:30 Club to HBO and off-Broadway, it does take a few side trips—through past-life regressions and visits with boyfriends, children, and a rock-group analyst—always returning to the road the band traveled as a trio.
Palmer is the group’s designated Amazon, tending to occupy stage center (or perhaps just making the center follow her around). She claims to be 6-foot-2 and looks at least a head taller than that when she’s belting out a song, but she has a deftly delicate way with a lyric. Of the Ziff sisters, Elizabeth claims the title of exhibitionist (which she proves early on by flashing the crowd out front) and seems the team’s social conscience, bouncing at her microphone with enough energy to power the band to the moon and beyond. Amy, meanwhile, lets the audience come to her during the songs, with an airy, Mae West– ian offhandedness, only to explode zanily in the sketches in between. Her coked-to-the-gills riffs are priceless, her boozy rants breathtaking. Providing backup from high atop a scarlet staircase are the capable Tony Salvatore on guitar and Mino Gori on drums.
Though BETTY has a loyal fan base hereabouts, on opening night the band mingled oddly with the older, more staid Theater J audience. But the show the group has assembled around its still-rising career arc is entertaining enough to make believers of first-timers, and by curtain call the crowd was pretty unified in its cheers. As I say, the D.C. theater scene will be a bit less bright when BETTY Rules closes up shop next month.CP