Christopher Durang


Full Length Plays

Betty's Summer Vacation

 

 

Betty's Summer Vacation had its premiere production off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons (Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; Lynn Landis, general manager) on February 19, 1999.  It was directed by Nicholas Martin; the set design was by Thomas Lynch, the costume design was by Michael Krass, the lighting design was by Kevin Adams, the sound design was by Kurt B. Kellenberger, original music by Peter Golub, casting by James Calleri, production manager was Christopher Boll, and the production stage manager was Kelley Kirkpatrick.  Understudies were Marc Ardido, Joanne Cregg, Carl Palmer.  

 

Cast

Betty

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Kellie Overbey

Trudy

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Julie Lund

Keith

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Nat DeWolf

Mrs. Siezmagraff

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Kristine Nielsen

Buck

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Troy Sostillio

Mr. Vanislaw

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Guy Boyd

Voice 1

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Jack Ferver

Voice 2

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Geneva Carr

Voice 3

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Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.


Betty’s Summer Vacation marked the first time Durang worked at Playwrights Horizons under the artistic directorship of Tim Sanford.  (Durang had three plays at Playwrights Horizons in the 80s under the artistic directorship of Andre Bishop: Sister Mary Ignatius… and The Actor’s Nightmare in 1981, Baby with the Bathwater in 1983, and Laughing Wild in 1987.)  It also marked Durang’s first time working with director Nicholas Martin, and the result of working with theatre, director and cast was a happy experience both personally and critically. 

The play was extended and sold out for its run.  In late May Durang won his third playwriting Obie award for Betty’s…, and Obie awards were also won by Nicholas Martin for his direction, Thomas Lynch for his sets (and his career in general), and Kristine Nielsen for her justly acclaimed performance as the charismatic but loony Mrs. Siezmagraff.

From Durang: “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.  The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings (important, but also riveting as a “mini-series”), the Menendez brothers killing their parents and claiming they were sexually abused, Lorena Bobbit cutting off her husband’s penis and throwing it into a field (where it was found; and John Wayne Bobbit, with his re-attached member, later made a porno film – what a great couple!), the O.J. trial, various scandals regarding Michael Jackson, and, of course, the extremely riveting coverage of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, full of lies, betrayal (that scary Linda Tripp), sex (of course), and all presented 24 hours a day with music and beating drums presenting The Presidency in Crisis! as if it was some sort of TV news equivalent of Ben-Hur.  Which it was.

The plot of Betty’s Summer Vacation particularly references the Menendez Brothers case and the Lorena Bobbit case.  A couple of preview audiences who didn’t know that in advance were sometimes taken aback at Playwrights.  Other audiences “got it” and went on the nutty/merry dark ride.  And once the critics praised the play (and helped adjust expectations), the play was quite an audience hit.

Some reviews included:

[Betty’s Summer Vacation is] not only wickedly funny but a trenchant commentary on the state of American culture and the most original play to hit the New York stage in years.
     - Curtis Ellis, MSNBC

…an ecstatically angry new comedy…   Please welcome Mr. Durang back to the ranks of America’s liveliest living playwrights.  This deeply influential dramatist, who steered the suburban domestic comedy into dark and uncharted waters in the 1970s and 1980s, has been mostly silent in the last decade.   With "Vacation," however, Mr. Durang is in fighting trim, an anarchic moralist with a mission to entertain us while pointing out how pathetically addicted we are to being entertained. … All [of the actors] are terrific, but it is Ms. Nielsen who provides the evening’s touchstone performance.
     - Ben Brantley, New York Times

With a style that incorporates Brechtian alienation and Alfred Jarry grotesquerie, the deliriously assaultive, brashly funny "Vacation" defines to perfection the lurid, scandal-starved past decade.
     - Erik Jackson, Time Out New York

Christopher Durang has finally come of age and proves to be every bit as sharp and caustic as England’s "Joe Orton"… It’s simply his most brilliant play yet.
     - David Kaufman, New York Daily News

Durang is manic and heartbroken; in other words, he’s a comedian whose fury takes the form of farce.  …Durang wants to purge his mind, and society, of this media pollution… Betty is left standing by the sea… The sound of the ocean is more important than what she says.  The crashing of the waves works on the audience like the natural rhythm of breath…[Durang] lets us glimpse the mysterious peace that sensationalism makes us forget – the sweet shock of the eternal.
     - John Lahr, The New Yorker

…the funniest new farce in years… the play lifts off from the ground of brilliantly naturalistic comedy into the stratosphere of zany satire… by far Durang’s best.
     - Donald Lyons, New York Post

The triumphant return of Christopher Durang to the ranks of America’s most incisive living playwrights and a vivid testament to the fact that satire, shaped with enough idiosyncratic charm, can sear like no other form.  Directed by Nicholas Martin, this surreal comedy of television, tabloids and domestic homicide brought a whole new spin to the idea of a culture that is entertaining itself to death.
     - Ben Brantley, Year in Review (1999), New York Times

The Story:

Betty is looking forward to a relaxing vacation at the ocean. But Trudy, whom she knows only slightly, chatters incessantly; and then there are the other housemates - sexy lout Buck, who’s pathologically on the make with women all the time, and sweet, withdrawn Keith who carries a shovel and a mysterious hatbox and just may be a serial killer. 

Then the emotionally anarchic landlady, Mrs. Siezmagraff, moves in too, suddenly in need of a place to stay and in the mood to be around young people.

To Betty’s surprise, Mrs. Siezmagraff is Trudy’s mother.  “But we don’t talk about it much because her father incested her when he was drunk, and I never did anything about it because I was co-dependent,” she explains helpfully to Betty.  “I mean, what should I have done?  Broken up the family and gone on welfare?”  She laughs at the impracticality of that thought.

Buck keeps coming on to everyone, and shows Trudy his scrapbook of pictures of his penis.  And Keith keeps hiding in his room, though once he answers the door with bloody gloves on.  “I’m busy now,” he says.

And then there’s the matter of the “laugh track” in the house.  At different times people’s comments are greeted by laughter – in the air?  Maybe from the ceiling?  It seems like the laughter from a sitcom.   And sometimes the “voices” speak in unison.

Since no one can stop the voices, after a while they just accept them.

Betty makes dinner the first night, and Mrs. Siezmagraff has a guest coming - a man she found hiding in the women’s changing room at the beach, taking pictures. “Some of the women hit him,” she says, but she thought he was fun. 

Mr. Vanislaw arrives, only wearing a raincoat and flashing himself at the horrified Betty and Trudy.  “Look at my dicky!” he says, but then rushes off to Keith’s room anxious to meet the person who has “the head in the box.”  “Well, now, we don’t know there’s a head in the box,” Mrs. Siezmagraff reminds him.  “It could be just hats.”

After dinner, a nutty game of charades follows, and everyone then goes off, leaving Betty to do the dishes.  

Betty’s feeling gloomy, and the Voices encourage her to forget the dishes and go for a walk.  Betty decides they’re right, and heads out to the beach.  There’s silence for a while, and the Voices say “Nothing’s happening right now.  Gosh, we’re just staring at the furniture.”  They call out for somebody to come back, but nobody does.

Later on, Mr. Vanislaw comes back with drunk Mrs. Siezmagraff, who passes out.  Vanislaw looks for Betty, but she’s not back, so he then pushes himself into Trudy’s room.  Trudy cries out, but her drunk mother (“I had seven margaritas!”) is too out of it to help.  

Trudy’s rape is a scary part of the play – it’s not meant to be funny, but it’s also not a rape in a realistic play.

Trudy comes out of her room enraged and gets a carving knife and follows Mr. Vanislaw, who’s gone into Keith’s room.  “Trudy,” warns Mrs. Siezmagraff, seeing the knife.  “Be nice now.” 

There’s a terrible scream, and Trudy comes back with something in her hand.  She hands it to her mother.  “What is it?” she says.  “It’s his penis, stupid,” say the Voices.  

Mrs. Siezmagraff is horrified, runs around confusedly, then puts it in the freezer for possible reattachment.  She calls 911 and then goes to check on the state of Mr. Vanislaw, but comes charging back out. 

“Where is his head?  What did you do to his head?”  Trudy says she did nothing to the head.  “Well, he’s headless!  I invite a guest to this house and this is how he’s treated.”  She hangs up on 911 – the reattaching is pointless now.  Keith comes out and admits he cut off Mr. Vanislaw’s head because “he hurt Trudy.”

From here the repercussions of Trudy and Keith’s actions become intertwined with the Voices in the ceiling.  The Voices start talking a lot more, and start bossing the characters around.  And they start picking favorites – finding Keith weird but oddly sweet, they announce their intention of nominating him for a People’s Choice Award.  

Trudy, Keith and Mrs. Siezmagraff are exhausted from a visit to the police station, and Betty is fed up and plans to leave in the morning; and so they all go to bed.  This enrages the Voices, who scream and chant and demand people come back.  “Time to look in the freezer again,” they call.  “Or just come out and bicker in front of us again, we love insult comedy.  A-wooga!  A-wooga!”

Betty needs sleep desperately and charges back to insist they be quiet, when the Voices – in the form of a three person “entity” joined at the hips by tubing and wires – burst through the ceiling and scream “ENTERTAIN US!”

Everyone is terrified, as if they’ve been visited by aliens.  The Voices say how fascinated they are with the story of sensitive killer Keith and nutty neurotic Trudy, and how they can’t wait to follow their trial on Court TV.  In fact, they want to see it now, now, now!

Mrs. Siezmagraff, always up for a party, decides to oblige and puts on her own one woman Court TV trial, playing herself, the prosecuting attorney interrogating her, and a mysterious Irish maid with secret knowledge of Trudy’s childhood.  By the end of the floridly dramatic trial, the Voices are so moved that they acquit Trudy of all charges.

But the Voices are insatiable and want more excitement, and Betty tries to soothe them with a made-up fairy tale, but when Buck comes from a sexual tryst, the Voices become over-stimulated and urge rape and mayhem, pushing events into a kind of explosive Armageddon in which the house blows up and only Betty escapes.  Disoriented and frightened, she’s left standing alone on the beach, listening to the ocean, trying to find comfort in the sound of the waves.


andrea-martin-web.jpg (40585 bytes)Betty’s Summer Vacation was optioned for off-Broadway after its successful New York run, but due to lack of theatre availability (and the crash of the Nasdaq stock market), it didn’t end up being moved.  It’s been done successfully in a number of other theatres, notably Pittsburgh Public and the Huntington Theatre in Boston, where it was re-directed by Nicholas Martin and featured Andrea Martin as Mrs. Siezmagraff.  (see photo on left by T. Charles Erickson)

The need for the Laugh Track (the Three Voices) to crash through the ceiling causes certain construction (and safety) problems, and is an expense for the set.  Although the crashing through the ceiling is definitely the preferable way to stage it, the author feels it’s possible that the Voices could also crash through a wall, and thematically the effect would be the same (that this Laugh Track was “inside” the house and had now materialized).

Note: the Playwrights Horizons 1999 production was taped and may be watched at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library with permission.

Durang offers some minor updating of references - click on Essay on Updating

Cast size: 5 male, 4 female
Rights: Dramatists Play Service



 

photos by Joan Marcus

Buck looks for the party
Troy Sostillio as Buck
“Entertain Us!"
DeWolf, Nielsen, Ferver, Carr, Simmons, Jr

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