Primal Screams

You'd think that plays about dysfunctional families and "personal identity issues" would have run their course by now. Well, think again, Oprah fans. Just when it seemed as if America's collective navel-picking and self-pity-partying were headed for the theatrical graveyard, along come a couple of local productions that resurrect our nagging tendency to analyze ourselves to death even before we've lived through a decent midlife crisis or two.

The good news is that both of these shows are comedies. And while each work's particular litany of neuroses is different in style and tone, both productions make you wonder whether our curiosity about behavioral psychology is a healthy interest or a debilitating obsession. As an added bonus, both shows are being presented in Boulder--the perfect place for perfected self-absorption--which may account for the fact that even their lamer passages of psychobabble contain a ring of truth.

The relentless pursuit and avoidance of such truth underscores all of the action in the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's presentation of Two Women Avoiding Involuntary Hospitalization (a hormonal cabaret). Written and performed by Nancy Cranbourne and Patti Dobrowolski, who each portray several different guests (including themselves) at a self-actualization farm, the two-hour comedy revue takes a few good-natured pokes at, among other things, menopause, dieting, sexuality and self-help authors.

In one of the first sketches, truth becomes such a valuable commodity that one camper, pausing to consider the amount of money she's spending to become a better her, turns to her Camp Singing Pines bunkmate and asks, "I wonder what that works out to be per experience?" A few moments later, the roomies reveal that they've each smuggled a cache of junk food into the heavily guarded compound. (After all, who can survive for an entire week on a strict diet of Tofu Surprise?) In a mock duel of sorts, the two reach underneath their respective beds and pull out small and then large coolers full of contraband, a predictable bit of slapstick that elicits howls from audience members poised to cackle their heads off at the cheesiest sight gag or one-liner.

For example, Dobrowolski delivers a drawn-out monologue about a supermarket checkout boy that nearly lulls us to sleep. But the punchline--"He called me 'ma'am'!"--produces plenty of chuckles. During one scene about food cravings, Cranbourne holds up a waffle iron she's sneaked into the cabin, and theatergoers scream and giggle with delight at the mere sight of a kitchen appliance. And when the girls gather in a circle to perform interpretive dance routines, the audience is nearly in hysterics as Cranbourne shows us her version of a chipmunk. Never mind that the actress has already established her character's extreme shyness, as well as her reluctance to follow her group leader's instructions. Once Cranbourne begins her dance, the exhibitionist within her is magically freed, and the former wallflower is inexplicably emboldened to frolic and cavort with a bucked-toothed, puffed-up grin on her face. While that's funny enough on its own, it doesn't make much sense given what we know about Cranbourne's character; nor does the experience seem to alter her in any way. It's as if Cranbourne is performing to earn our laughter instead of being truthful to her character's wish to survive an idiotic class assignment--which would probably be an even funnier choice. Then again, little in this patchwork show follows a clear, comic progression of believable characters.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, since most spectators seem more than content to revel in the delightful interplay and remarkable physical antics of these talented comediennes. And the minute you stop expecting this collection of extended bits to bear any resemblance to a play, the easier it is to accept the evening as the hit-and-miss nightclub act it eventually becomes. Still, some of the sketches--such as a trust-fall episode that goes nowhere and a Texan makeup artist's fluffy musings--could use some weight, and most of the other scenes would benefit from some added comic punch.

To that end, Cranbourne and Dobrowolski might want to insert a couple of heart-to-heart episodes in which characters too often played for laughs reveal themselves in less predictable and more substantial ways. True, it's always tricky to mix serious material with the funny stuff, but it's not as if the show were already a runaway freight train of yuks. And the two actresses are certainly likable and accomplished enough to warrant a dramatic departure or two that would reinforce director Molly Thompson's skeletal comic framework.

In fact, as the show wears on, each cartoonish caricature does acquire a few more endearing, true-to-life qualities. Even the camp "counselors" (two British-accented sadists and a savvy self-help author who discovers her affinity for an angry, undersexed lesbian named Jane) become more consumed with their own personalities to the point that the comedy begins to arise from the characters' situations as opposed to the performers' commentary. In that spirit, why not insert a couple of foreboding téte-à-tétes between Jane and her lover-to-be in Act One and then capitalize on those setups during Jane's well-acted "confrontation" scene with her scribe in Act Two? And what about orchestrating an earlier group scene in which all of the characters interact so rapidly that we get a sense of what it's like when a group of women bent on getting in touch with their bodies and their higher selves are forced to actually cope with everyone else's identity crises?  

By the time the duo performs the show-ending hormonal cabaret of the work's title--complete with fertility dances, Motown medleys and a rousing version of "Proud Mary"--most of the characters have established enough credibility to make Cranbourne and Dobrowolski's efforts as hilarious as they're intended to be. With some careful reworking and interweaving of various story lines, this pastiche might well take on a theatrical life of its own, soaring with an all-natural comic energy that, in its present form, anyway, seems a tad artificial for the show's own good.

If BMoCA's effort could use a better grounding in reality, though, the Actors Ensemble production of Baby With the Bathwater needs a significant comic overhaul. The production was plagued by a series of opening-night miscues, including several exaggerated portrayals that missed playwright Christopher Durang's satirical marks by a mile; hopefully, it's gotten better with time. But even though the black comedy about the ramifications of familial dysfunction has long been a popular subject with theatergoers, this production's lack of levity may be due to the fact that we've finally outrun--or at least caught up to--Durang's wicked take on being brought up by people who can't look after their own concerns, much less a helpless child's.

The bulk of the action is performed against a set of pastel pinks, blues and yellows subtly adorned with line drawings of Gerber-like baby faces. In addition, there's a window in the back wall that looks out onto a garish, bright-green vista, and various theme songs from vintage television shows (such as "The Flintstones") play in the background, indicating that the characters reside in a world far removed from reality. But during scenes in which each character is forced to confront the hard facts of everyday life, the brightly colored flats are rearranged to reveal starkly lit areas with pitch-black walls. (The inventive, if occasionally unwieldy, scenery was designed by Steve Clisset.)

But neither the screaming pastel world nor its sterile side chambers resound with sustained hilarity. That's because director Craig Rosen and his energetic performers take an embittered approach, delivering their lines with an underlying cynicism instead of a clueless innocence that would be truer to life--and funnier. As is the case with most comedies, Durang's deliberately distorted views on life, however sick and twisted, gradually become amusing when we're permitted to compare his philosophy with our own sense of what's right and wrong. When performers inject the goings-on with a heavy dose of sarcasm instead of blissfully surrendering themselves to the playwright's off-the-wall environment, though, they effectively prejudge the dialogue for us. As a result, our laughter is no longer required to balance Durang's comic equation.

Interestingly enough, when the household of Helen (Kristin Williams) and John (Tom Pavey) begins to crumble in Act Two, the macabre happenings start to elicit more laughs from theatergoers. We're introduced to their son, a young man who initially goes by the name of Daisy (Geoffe Kent). He stands in a spotlight and, gazing above the audience, tells his unseen shrink about his conflicted sexual feelings (sometimes he wears a skirt that his parents gave him as a present). Seems that our hero/ine grew up in a household where both of his parents regularly slept with the lingerie-clad nanny (Eva Lindberg) on a pull-out couch and where shots of NyQuil and handfuls of Quaaludes were staples of everyone's diet, including baby's. Despite the fact that one of Daisy's teachers (Lesley Ann Geffinger, who portrays several roles) attempts to address his situation, the anguished teen confesses to his doctor, "I have this enormous desire to feel absolutely nothing."

Slightly ahead of its time when Durang penned the piece a few years back, this diatribe about bad parents and their socially mutant offspring now seems a bit dated. Still, when they're not forcing the issue, the actors manage to earn a modicum of laughter. Kent renders a sympathetic portrait of the ten-year therapy veteran, while Geffinger invests each of her serviceable characters with a touching, beyond-her-years humanity. Lindberg's strident, sometimes unintelligible dominatrix is occasionally amusing, and although Pavey is over the top as the youthful dad, he hits his stride as the older alcoholic patriarch. And Williams is a promising dramatic actress who, unfortunately, tends to either overcompensate or implode when she delivers her character's zippier punchlines.  

When all is said and done, it becomes increasingly clear that playwrights who micromanage such lofty emotions as desire, fulfillment and destiny wind up diminishing the human condition more than they ennoble it. They ought to listen when Daisy's therapist says, "Don't you think it's time to move on and let go of this stuff?"

Two Women Avoiding Involuntary Hospitalization (a hormonal cabaret), through March 20 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 303-443-2122.

Baby With the Bathwater, presented by the Actors Ensemble through March 27 at the Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder, 303-548-4907.

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