Your summer vacation will be nothing like Betty’s, and that’s a relief. “Betty’s Summer Vacation” is a total beach-house wreck, and not because of rain. She’s plagued by her housemates, and, before the first night is over, there’ll be more than enough perverse, sexist, deadly, creepy and abusive incidents to fill an entire police blotter.
The much-heralded playwright and Bucks County resident Christopher Durang (a Tony Award winner for his “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”) wrote “Betty’s Summer Vacation” in 1999, six years before the first-known use of the phrase “trigger warning.” Durang was ahead of his time. The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, producer of the current run of “Betty’s Summer Vacation” at the Walnut Street Theatre, places a little parenthetical “audience be warned” in marketing material. It’s not just one incident they’re referring to. The entire 80-minute one-act is a trigger.
Audiences 20 years ago were not as wimpy as some of us are today — they didn’t need a warning, they just needed to see a play and react, period. “Betty’s Summer Vacation” isn’t for everyone, it may not even be for me. But I laughed at plenty at stuff that’s never funny except when a deft playwright like Durang dresses it in absurdist farce and builds a context that makes it funny.
“Betty’s Summer Vacation” includes a rape, a severed head and penis, a lot of gab about incest, a flasher (the actor Bill Rahill), a happily repugnant beach bum (Chris Fluck, a threatening loner (Anthony Crosby), a dingbat of a landlord (Tina Brock, who leads the stage company and also directs the show), and a freezer compartment that’s put to unusual use.
It also contains its own laugh track, provided live by Josh Hitchens, Kassy Bradford, and Carlos Forbes. The laugh track comes from the ceiling and startles all the characters, and ultimately manipulates the plot.
And therein lies the serious side of “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” which poses the question: Why do we respond so eagerly to an entertainment diet of sex, murder and mayhem? Plus nowadays, how does social media feed into that response, influencing events?
The play begins when Betty (the single sane character, played with charming sincerity and virtue by Kirsten Quinn) and her friend, a non-stop talker named Trudy (Amanda Schoonover, always top-notch), bring their luggage into the summer house they’ve rented. In short order, the other roommates pop in — including Mrs. Seizmagraff, the landlady, who’s not even supposed to be there. Soon, we hear laughter at the most inappropriate moments. The laugh track won’t let these characters go their own ways. It co-opts their behavior, and wants more, more, more.
And maybe I’m part of the laugh-track mentality — I found it hard to watch the goings-on and also impossible to take my eyes off the stage. (This may be the absurdist’s definition of compelling.) The cast, Brock’s direction, the ’50s pastel set design and costumes (Dirk Durossette and Millie Hiibel) honor Durang. Their production builds in intensity even as it dallies casually with taboos and brings out guilty laughter.
If comedy really is serious business, this group is weighty.
“Betty’s Summer Vacation,” produced by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, runs through June 30 at the Independence Studio on the third floor of Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut between Eighth and Ninth streets. 215-285-0472 or IdiopathicRidiculopathyConsortium.org.