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Wild and Crazy 

Theater Review: Beyond Therapy

Stayin' Alive" . . . "I Will Survive" . . . "It's Raining Men." The music alone is enough to remind us that we've come a long way, baby, since the late 1970s.

First staged in 1981, Beyond Therapy is Christopher Durang's comedy about dating in the disco era, and it is a cultural artifact. For modern audiences, the play is potentially weighed down by the playwright's heavy reliance on now-obscure pop-culture references, an antiquated understanding of human sexuality, and characters engaged in jaw-dropping psychotherapeutic malpractice. In fact, much of the script reads like a "$25,000 Pyramid" category: Things Meant to Be Humorous That Now Seem Stale/Offensive.

Yet the UVM Theatre Department's current production is surprisingly fresh and funny. Despite some of the anachronistic themes, it retains the edgy feel the play must have had a quarter-century ago. Credit goes to the dynamic, all-student ensemble of actors for the comedic fizz and emotional kick in this cocktail of human dysfunction. Director Peter Jack Tkatch's straightforward, uncluttered style allowed his performers to concentrate on creating quirks of behavior, not frenetic onstage action.

The young cast fashioned deep portrayals of shallow thirtysomethings from a generation before their time. They seemed to relish the opportunities to act up, and out, while managing to keep their damaged, disturbed characters plausible and sometimes even likable.

The play takes place in Manhattan, where Prudence and Bruce meet through the personal ads. Their dates take place in an "existential" restaurant, conducive to conversation because there is never any service, and are interspersed with scenes at their respective therapists' offices. Prudence -- prim, uptight and conflicted between traditional and feminist desires -- is looking for Mr. Right. Bruce -- a weepy, slightly creepy but well-meaning whack job -- is looking for someone to marry, move to Connecticut with him, bear his children and welcome his gay lover Bob to live over their garage.

Needless to say, the first date is a disaster, and the second date occurs only because Bruce has altered his ad and Prudence thinks she's going to meet someone else. Strangely -- very strangely -- they hit it off, even though Prudence declares herself a homophobe who doesn't believe in bisexuality and thinks that men should cry only when something heavy falls on them. Bob also doesn't believe in bisexuality -- he thinks everyone is gay -- and he throws a queen-sized tantrum when Bruce brings Prudence home.

Although the doctors are clearly loonier than their patients, both therapists get involved in resolving the messy love triangle -- but not before everyone throws water in each other's faces and faux gunshots are fired. The good news about the gunplay: It finally gets a waiter's attention.

Prudence is at the center of the storm. Mood-swinging Bruce wants to marry her moments after they meet; her oversexed but underperforming therapist Stuart wants to sleep with her (again); Bruce's loopy shrink Mrs. Wallace wants to treat her; and Bob possibly wants to kill her.

Lizzie Chazen played Prudence brilliantly, as a tightly wound and mightily confused woman picking her way through minefields of misbehavior. Prudence doesn't know what she wants, but she knows what she doesn't want, and Chazen underscored her character's disapproving judgments with imperious scowls. But she also used body language -- hesitant steps, crossed arms -- to convey her character's fundamental insecurity.

As the deliciously inappropriate Bruce, Christopher Cohen created an engaging, retroactive case study for the invention of Prozac. Bruce desperately needs his serotonin levels adjusted: He cries, blurts out unseemly non sequiturs, pledges undying love, and then cries again. Cohen contorted his face to make Bruce one of the world's ugliest criers, and yet somehow made his character seem more endearing than psychotic. Cohen and Chazen created a rapport that made the improbable love connection eventually seem believable.

As the threatened and threatening Bob, Adam Yeager Gould stalked the stage with a rage that wavered between suicidal and homicidal. Gould was hilarious in his dead-serious take on the man-child in need of Anger Management 101. Gould and Cohen also demonstrated a credible love connection, but Bruce's tender hugs and genuine concern fail to stop Bob's escalating tantrum.

So Bruce calls for help from his therapist, Charlotte Wallace, played with nutty gusto by Kate Emmerich. With a frizzy mop of red hair, Emmerich channeled Kathy Griffin as the happily befuddled doctor. Poor blood-sugar control means Mrs. Wallace has trouble with word-finding (saying "Saskatchewan" when she means "secretary," or "porpoise" for "patient") and epithet-spewing (unprintable), until she can stuff a cookie in her mouth. Mrs. Wallace gets some of the play's best lines, especially the disjointed word-association lists.

While Emmerich's diction and timing were generally strong, she sometimes failed to pause long enough for laughter to subside, and her jangly bracelets were a constant low-level distraction.

While Mrs. Wallace always wants the best for her patients, even if she can't remember who they are, Dr. Stuart Framingham is a self-absorbed sexual predator. The mercurial egomaniac justifies his "rushed" sexual performance to Prudence: "Listen, honey, there's nothing premature about it. Our society is paced quickly, we all have a lot of things to do." Tim Fairley captured the shrink's oily mix of smarm and charm by lurking and smirking his way through his scenes. He looked like a preppie Tony Danza, but treated women with the potty-mouthed sensitivity of Howard Stern.

The show's technical elements did not attempt to upstage the outlandish characters. Elegance and simplicity defined Jeff Modereger's scenic design and Jessica Pescosol- ido's costumes. With no curtain, set changes took place quickly under dimmed lights, accompanied by perky period dance tunes. Polished wood-base units became tables and desks; the same set of leather armchairs furnished restaurant, office and living room sets.

Costumes often escape notice when the setting is relatively contemporary. But Pescosolido dressed her cast well, with late '70s details, such as Bob's nylon down vest, that felt familiar to those who lived through that period. Prudence's two outfits were especially important in showing how her character changes. Initially, she wore a dark, conservative suit with a pink shirt and pearls. Later in the play, she loosened up considerably, sporting a clingy, plum-colored wrap dress (courtesy of Lycra, another signature innovation of the decade). She covered up with a matching tweed jacket, however, during moments when she felt unsure of herself.

As a late '70s slice of life, Beyond Therapy is a reminder of how different American culture was not so long ago: casual sex, pre-AIDS; psychotherapy, pre-Prozac; pop music, when disco briefly ruled. As theater, it's a wacky farce that takes itself just seriously enough so that we feel traces of empathy and even affection for its neurotic losers and louts. Like the disco CD you play to get moving on the treadmill, Beyond Therapy is also a guilty pleasure, a self-indulgence that can't help but make you smile.

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