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Perhaps the best way to convey the anarchic spirit of the new absurdist comedy by Jen Silverman (The Moors) is to provide its subtitle. Steel yourself, because it’s a mouthful: In Essence, a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic?; Imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That.
If, like this reviewer, you have trouble imagining “the Antarctic as a pussy,” then Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, receiving its New York City premiere with off-Broadway’s MCC Theater, may not be for you. There’s certainly no shortage of imagination in the play itself, which, true to its title, concerns five women, each named Betty.
Betty 1 (Dana Delany, China Beach) is an Upper East Sider raging at the news of the world and unhappily married to a cheating husband. Betty 2 (Adina Verson, Indecent) is a sexually repressed housewife whose alter-ego is a hand puppet, made of her own hand. Betty 3 (Ana Villafane, On Your Feet!) is a sexy Latina who swings both ways. Betty 4 (Lea DeLaria, Orange Is the New Black) is a butch lesbian who spends much of her time working on her truck’s motor. And Betty 5 (Chaunte Wayans, niece of Marlon, Shawn and Damon) is (as the script describes her) “genderqueer (masculine-of-center),” recently released from prison and the owner of a boxing gym.
These five disparate characters, who barely seem to occupy the same universe, interact in a series of short blackout scenes prefaced by titles projected above the stage. One episode involves Betty 3 providing Betty 2 and Betty 4 with hand mirrors so they can inspect their genitalia. Betty 2 is at first reluctant, asking, “What if it’s ugly? What if there’s teeth?” But when she finally brings herself to take a look she experiences a revelation, becoming obsessed with her own, to use the word most frequently heard onstage throughout the evening, “pussy.”
A major plot element involves Betty 3’s newfound artistic aspirations after attending a performance of a Shakespeare play which she remembers as being called “Summer’s Midnight Dream.” She enlists the other women to help her create a theater (or as they all pronounce it, “theat-ah”) piece inspired by that comedy’s play-within-a-play. “That sounds confusing,” Betty 4 comments after hearing some of the details of Shakespeare’s comedy. “It was cultural,” Betty 3 explains.
Meanwhile, Betty 1 goes to Betty 5’s boxing gym, where she’s able to work out her aggression. “I just love hitting things!” she proclaims. She later takes Betty 5 home with her, with the two becoming romantically involved after they each put on her husband’s clothing.
A little of this goes a long way, and the play starts to feel forced and repetitious. As demonstrated by the cutesy subtitle, the playwright seems tickled to death with her own cleverness. But she comes across less as a theatrical provocateur exploring issues of gender fluidity and sexuality than an immature teenager writing dirty jokes on a bathroom wall. There are some funny lines, to be sure, especially as delivered by such comic pros as DeLaria. But the unfocused work adds up to much less than the sum of its parts.
The actresses throw themselves into their roles with admirable fearlessness and energy, while Mike Donahue’s staging seems designed to keep things moving quickly enough to help us overlook the writing’s scattershot elements. Throughout the proceedings, props small and large periodically fall onto the stage from overhead. The pointless visual gag only serves as a reminder of the randomness of the play itself.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Dana Delany, Lea DeLaria, Adina Verson, Ana Villafane, Chaunte Wayans
Playwright: Jen Silverman
Director: Mike Donahue
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Music and sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Projection designer: Caite Hevner
Presented by MCC Theater
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