'Betty' is dark, disturbingly funny

Sabrina Favors
Ka Leo Staff Columnist
February 13, 2004

Have you ever gone on a vacation to escape the noise and hectic life of being in college? Maybe you've just spent an entire day at the beach, not thinking about homework or projects? Betty feels the same.

In "Betty's Summer Vacation," she rents a timeshare with her friend, Trudy, for the summer, expecting very little in the way of adventure. She was painfully wrong.

"Betty's Summer Vacation" is a gruesome and dark comedy, written by Christopher Durang and directed by Betty Burdick. It will be playing at the Kennedy Theatre mainstage tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, Feb. 15, at 2 p.m. "Betty's Summer Vacation" is recommended for mature audiences only.

Joining the responsible and reasonable Betty and her talkative friend Trudy are sex-craved, beer drinking Buck, the vibrant and vivacious Mrs. Siezmagraff and the peculiar Keith, who is quite possessive of his hat boxes and doesn't like to be around people for very long. As he explains it, "I have seizures if I talk to people for too long."

"Betty's Summer Vacation" was first produced in 1999. Though generally a comedy, there are some serious events which are portrayed in a humorous way. Disturbingly funny is the phrase that comes to mind. As Durang himself explains on his Web site, "I think that my plays have that kind of humor in them. Sometimes the extremity of suffering, or the extremity of bad behavior is so extreme, that you see and feel the overview, and it's awful and it's funny."

"Betty's Summer Vacation" certainly has that. Epitomized in the over-the-top Mrs. Siezmagraff is the idea of being oblivious to very important matters, as opposed to her namesake, which is a highly sensitive instrument. As the audience quickly learns, Mrs. Siezmagraff (played by Stephanie Kong) is Trudy's mother, and it becomes apparent that she hasn't been the best of one. Throughout the play Mrs. Siezmagraff is disbelieving of the fact that Trudy's father sexually molested her when she was younger, and states that Trudy is a liar and a seducer.

Granted, anyone who sees this play is going to need an open mind about the humor, Durang admits that not everyone is going to think it's funny. The sense of serious events being trivialized or made fun of occurs throughout the play. The way these are handled makes the audience laugh, even though at the time, some may think that the subject shouldn't warrant it.

About his plays, Durang says, "(there's) that mixture I like of comedy and seriousness underneath," although in "Betty's Summer Vacation," "underneath" isn't always quite so far.

When you walk into Kennedy Theatre, casual lounge music is playing, a sort of background noise that seems to indicate Burdick's desire to present the false presumptions of Betty about her peaceful vacation.

The set is fairly simple, with clean lines. It's a nice, normal-looking ocean-side house. All of this sets up the expectation that this normal-looking place isn't going to stay normal.

Betty (Megan Patton) and Trudy (Nicole Brilhante) arrive at the house first and are quickly joined by Keith (Pedro Haro), then Mrs. Siezmagraff. Last of all is Buck (Ely Wyatt Na Ka Ulu 'Aina Rapoza), who spends most of the play wanting to get laid, and eager to show Trudy his portfolio of penis pictures.

Later the cast is joined by Mr. Vanislaw (Nate Hayashi), a "derelict" who enjoys exposing himself to women. Hayashi does well playing a homeless molester. He repeatedly flashes Betty and Trudy, wearing nothing but sneakers and trench coat, and ignores his hostess, Mrs. Siezmagraff, who is passed out on the couch. Hayashi creates an actual character when it could be all too easy to portray Mr. Vanislaw as two-dimensional.

Betty is the "voice of reason" and Patton plays this part well, often trying to rationalize the situation and keep control of herself. This didn't quite seem to work at the very end, or perhaps worked too well, because there didn't appear to be enough emotion after all the character goes through. However, Patton succeeds for the most part when staying rational isn't always possible with three voices laughing periodically through the play.

The Voices (played by Shawn A. Thomsen, Marissa Robello, Adrien Martin) laugh when something is "so true it was funny," or because "we're uncomfortable ... we didn't know what else to do." They laugh for a variety of reasons, seeming to echo what the audience might laugh at. These voices eventually start demanding entertainment, and the other characters try to appease them.

Yet, it isn't so easy to satiate an audience. Haro does well when he begins to sing "Me and My Shadow" and dance in his pajamas and robe. Haro is great in this play, mixing a tender sensitivity, which attracts Trudy to Keith, with an odd and antisocial demeanor. One would almost think Keith was dismembering heads or something, he's that insistent on his privacy.

Another character worthy of a People's Choice Award is Kong's Mrs. Siezmagraff. Kong channels the humor and style of Bette Midler and Auntie Mame, adding three additional characters as she interrogates herself and her housekeeper Mrs. McGillicutty for a fictional episode of Court TV. She morphs seamlessly into the defending attorney, Texan bailiff, Mrs. McGillicutty and herself. She echoes the entire play, taking serious matters very light-heartedly.

Something implicit, hinted skillfully by the director, Burdick, is the danger of sitting in front of the television for hours on end without doing anything. Even after the Voices become more than Voices, descending from the ceiling and childishly demanding satisfaction, "soothe us, sooooothe us," they just sit on a couch and watch the pseudo Court TV. Occasionally they comment about the Lorena and John Bobbit and Menendez brothers' cases.

"The theme of the play is, basically, the 'tabloid-ization' of American culture — how in the '90s in particular, human nature's interest in horror and gossip combined with television's need to hook viewers, and the result was we all fell into the habit of looking at human tragedy and disgusting behavior as a fascinating kind of 'mini-series' for our delectation," as Durang explains. Burdick utilizes this idea well, and the overall effect of the play leaves the audience laughing, but thinking also.

Hopefully, after seeing this, audience members may recognize their own couch potato-ness and won't be quite so eager to watch Court TV. Entertainment isn't everything. end of article dingbat