Before the houselights dim at the outset of “Durang Durang”—the uneven but often hilarious collection of one-act comedies, parodies, and oddities at Studio SecondStage—author Christopher Durang brings on a doting aunt who has a few words she’d like to say. As a devoted theatergoer, Mrs. Sorken (Marcia Churchill) has accumulated a store of rather remarkable knowledge that she suspects will help patrons deal with the evening her nephew has concocted.
She explains, for instance, that the word “drama” comes from the same Greek root as “drained” and “Dramamine,” and concludes from this that audiences go to the theater to be exhausted and to overcome the nausea that is real life. She further notes that the god of wine and theater, whom we know as Dionysus, ends his name in Greek with the letters S.O.S., a clear call for help (and who doesn’t know the theater needs that?). Reject her reasoning at your peril; her conclusions are unassailable. I lost the thread when she was tying theater to photosynthesis, but I’ll bet that one came out OK too. She is, in short, an inveterate connection-seeker.
Like aunt, like nephew. Durang’s anarchic comedies have always given free association a certain dramatic shape, but the reason they’re so funny is that they’re headed everywhere at once—a tendency that’s naturally compounded in an evening of one-acts. Apart from the first formal sketch—a delicious Tennessee Williams parody called For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls—all the evening’s playlets shred multiple targets.
A Stye of the Eye/Agnes Is Odd, for instance, manages in perhaps 20 minutes to pinion the dialogue styles, habits of thought, symbolic devices, and playwriting peculiarities of Sam Shepard, Peter Shaffer, David Mamet, and John Pielmeyer. And that’s just for a start. It also gets in a few licks at the expense of actors, directors, and theater patrons. The sketch begins with a phone call placed by brothers Jake and Frankie (both played by Brion Dinges because, as in all Shepard plays, they’re two sides of one personality) to their mother (Dori Legg). Mom’s response, when she hears that Jake may have murdered his wife, is the not terribly helpful question “Why don’t you settle down and marry your sister?” But as soon becomes clear (well, not terribly, but leave that), Jake’s wife is only brain-damaged, which makes her perfect for the lead in a drama that combines shrinks who specialize in stigmata, spike-blinded horses, and swampy Florida real estate. Also a discussion of musical cymbalism—as in, “I don’t think these are cymbals, I think they represent something else.” Did I mention Amadeus? Well, Durang does, and another half-dozen plays as well.
Obviously, it’ll help to have a certain grounding in theater to appreciate all this. Part of the fun is in recognizing the moment when Lie of the Mind‘s plot points metamorphose into a parody of Buried Child. But director Serge Seiden keeps things animated enough that you don’t need to bring nearly as much info into the auditorium with you to appreciate the other sketches. No one who’s seen a high-school performance of The Glass Menagerie will fail to get the jokes in For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, for instance. And those who haven’t been exposed to the play at all are still likely to chuckle at the craziness Seiden and his cast generate while playing out Durang’s variations on Williams’ themes. Delicate, limping Laura becomes Lawrence (Scott Andrew Harrison) in this version, and what he collects isn’t glass animals, but glass cocktail stirrers. His mother, Amanda (Mary Tucker drawling up a storm), is a bit more forthright about her feelings (“It’s not that I’m bitter, dear, it’s just that I hate my life”). And the “feminine caller” Tom brings home talks loudly not from confidence but because she’s hard of hearing.
The post-intermission playlets are slighter. Nina in the Morning is an attenuated sketch about a woman who keeps up appearances the day her face-lift falls by fastening her cheeks to her temples with straight pins. Wanda’s Visit concerns an L.L. Bean couple that’s visited in mid-midlife crisis by hubby’s high-school crush from hell. And Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room is a modestly amusing principled-playwright-meets-crass-hollywood-agent sketch that would be funnier if Durang hadn’t stopped writing for the theater in the mid-’80s to pursue a more lucrative career in films and TV. A program note indicates he’s begun work on some new plays. Couldn’t have happened too soon.
Jim Petosa’s unconventionally elaborate Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris opens colorfully at the Olney Theater and proceeds to decorate the hell out of the great poet/songwriter’s best-known work. To synthesizer riffs that sound unnervingly like the interstitial music in Cats, a minstrel-like figure emerges from the sewers of Paris and begins conjuring his fellow cast members. Soon he’s surrounded by a gaggle of 20th-century French “types” including a sailor and a whore who brush past one another at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, a quintessentially innocent tyke in a party dress, and a T-shirted, leather-jacketed Belmondo clone who leers provocatively at strollers who appear to have stepped directly from a 1910 daguerrotype. Petosa’s program notes suggest that he’s trying for an epic, “Brechtian” feel, but by the end of the first number he seems to have stumbled into Madwoman of Chaillot territory. Or, more accurately, Jerry Herman’s musical version of that territory—the sweetly rambunctious landscape of Dear World.
Just why the director thought Brel needed to be gussied up isn’t clear. The songs are still effective—at least when their lyrics aren’t being obscured by fussy staging—but the material is almost ideally suited to the modern-dress, four-person cabaret setting originally devised for it in 1967 by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau. At the Olney, the cast size has been doubled, costumiere Helen Q. Huang has encapsulated a whole century in character-delineating outfits, and set designer James Kronzer has offered a gorgeous homage to Parisian landmarks and filled a stagewide picture frame with projected photos by Brassai. It’s all lovely to look at, but as unnecessary as the underlining provided by Carole Graham Lehan’s choreography. If the material were weak, you’d welcome the distraction. Because it isn’t, you don’t.
Moreover, nothing could be more fatal to the impact of Brel’s caustic lyrics than a tendency toward overstatement. The blistering anthem “Next,” usually performed with a kind of robotic rigidity to emphasize its anti-military themes, is rendered here as a desperate plea to the audience, emotion clouding meaning so insistently that by the time the singer sinks to his knees at the footlights, the words are all but unintelligible. In other numbers, cast members dangle from Eiffel Tower girders or stick their heads through a Notre Dame-style rose window or claw at singers perched atop crumbling pedestals, all to no particular purpose and to word-obfuscating effect. Only one number—“Marieke,” sung with riveting simplicity by Deb G. Girdler—really works as effectively as it should.
Petosa staged an acclaimed and evidently even more elaborate production of Brel at the University of Maryland last year. To reach the back rows of the 1600-seat Tawes Theater, a certain amount of enlarging and scenic elaboration was no doubt necessary. At the more intimate Olney, it’s overkill.