‘Evening of Durang’ solid theater, hampered by excessive length

“It was an ordinary Tuesday morning, just like any other Tuesday,” Ronald (a.k.a. The Fuller Brush Man) remarks in his narration during Christopher Durang’s The Nature and Purpose of the Universe.

But of course it isn’t. (If it were, I’m sure that I wouldn’t ever want to eat breakfast with Durang. I don’t think I’d be able to keep my Wheaties down.) Every time Ronald opens his mouth to say the words “ordinary Tuesday,” something utterly crazy occurs.

Few plays could so fully embrace a radical nun hell-bent on assassinating the Pope, but Durang’s farce does, and without a second thought. Nature and Purpose swarms with wild hijinks that play out frenetically on stage.

Sister Annie d’Moipoissant, or something to that effect, has been divinely inspired – she even speaks in tongues – and God has informed her that she must kill the false Pope and instate herself in the papacy. With a devoted layperson and wholesome family man named Steve as her aides, she can’t fail.

Steve’s family is about as American as an apple pie stuffed with worms. There’s the wife he ignores, who slaves away cooking and cleaning for him. And then there are the sons: Donald, the drug-pushing pimp, Gary, the was-never-in-the-closet-for-a-second queer and Andy, the youngest, who accidentally cut off his genitalia. As punishment, a vindictive school secretary issued an edict saying that Andy must take girl’s P.E. and wear frilly dresses. So much for the ordinary Tuesday morning.

In Durang’s warped mind, what is the nature and purpose of the universe? The abject suffering of housewives named Eleanor from New Jersey, evidently.

The Nature and Purpose of the Universe was one of the five pieces performed during An Evening of Christopher Durang, half the installment of Williamstheatre’s Spring Repertory Plays, which were staged the last two weekends on the AMT DownStage. Directed by David Eppel, the production, in mood and performance style, could not have contrasted its counterpart Spring Repertory piece, Old Times, much more.

An Evening of Christopher Durang was, from its outset, an evening of lively, enjoyable theater, and Nature and Purpose was markedly the best of the pieces performed. Durang’s plays require you to laugh out loud. The jokes, when done well, are that funny. Chuckling silently to yourself wouldn’t do them justice. And so, what Eppel and his cast in The Nature and Purpose of the Universe must be commended for first is their ability to get the audience laughing out loud. Their performance seems nearly effortless. The cast has to do and say some pretty wacky things, yet the lines and gestures do not seem overly rigid or practiced. In fact, there was almost an air of spontaneity to the performance, as if the action could have been as much created through improv as it was dictated by a set script.

The seemingly spontaneous nature of the piece was augmented by the fact that Elaine (Rachel Axler ’99), a character sent by God with the express mission of torturing Eleanor (Cathy Nicholson ’00), appears on stage in a myriad of incarnations. From radical Sister Annie, to Icelandic lounge singer, to irate neighbor, each incarnation is believable. Still, it must have been a trial for Axler to race around backstage changing personas more often than most performers changes their costumes. With her bizarre assortment of characters, Axler was responsible for the success of many of the play’s jokes, and she hit them just right. Strong too were Nicholson as the whimpering housewife, so pitiable it was almost sickening to watch, and John Magary ’00 as Steve, who mustered an amazing level of apparent earnestness as he helped Sister Annie and even as he lusted after Olga, the lounge singer. As far as physical comedy goes, Matt Speiser ’01 as Andy probably couldn’t have garnered more laughs than when he appeared on stage in a white ruffled dress, knee socks, and his ever-present towel reminding us of his earlier accident.

Nature and Purpose straddled intermission with what was an awkward break. The piece was relatively short, and I would have preferred to see it in its entirety either before or after intermission. Breaking between pieces, instead of in the middle of the work, would have been a much smoother and more comfortable transition. However, it is very possible that Eppel purposely split the piece where he did to allow audience members to leave if they wanted to do so. During its first weekend run, a noticeable number of audience members walked out before Nature and Purpose ended, evidently offended by the confrontational nature of Durang’s humor. If audience members actually left early, then they missed some of the best parts of the piece.

“An Evening of Christopher Durang” suffered from one major problem: its length. The acting throughout the performances was solid. At times, it even saved writing that was less than stellar, but it was not enough. The performance dallied along too many disparate paths, and asked the audience to follow it in too many directions. The piece might have been stronger if one of the shorter vignettes had been left out. Then, the audience would have been better able to thoroughly appreciate everything it was being exposed to, as it was, it was sensory overload.

Elba Holguin ’99 performed well as Mrs. Sorken, Durang’s high society aunt, who introduces each of the plays. The evening opened with Holguin giving a monologue about theater, well, explaining her dislikes and likes to the audience. I was surprised how long she able to hold the audience’s attention. The way she presented the farcical speech was quite compelling. However, length became Holguin’s foible as well. The first speech was fine by itself, but the subsequent speeches were just too much. In introducing the audience to Durang, the character was invaluable. It wasn’t Holguin’s fault; her acting was fine; and yet, had she had fewer lines, she would have been more effective.

The first play of the evening was Durang’s updated version of Medea. Across the board, I pretty much dislike updates, and when the chorus of Trojan women pulled out their emery boards and started to file, I almost dismissed the play altogether. However, the strength of Sara Richland’s ’01 performance did much to pull the play out of some murky writing. It was actually fairly amusing, especially when John Ackerman ’99, as a slightly disgruntled angel out of a deus ex machina, descended from the heavens. The piece seemed to have been included in the program as introduction to Durang’s humor so that by Nature and Purpose audience members would not be completely shocked by the dialogue.

Funeral Parlor was the third Durang piece of the evening, fourth if Mrs. Sorken’s monologues are counted as well. Both Rachel Mayer ’99 and Chuck Munyon ’00 gave fine performances, but after the electrically charged performance of Nature and Purpose, Funeral Parlor seemed a little too flat. Even so, Munyon reaped a fairly steady stream of laughs from the audience.

By the time J. Ann McLeod ’02 and Michael Izquierdo ’00 took the stage in Desire, Desire, Desire, the audience, it seemed, had been bombarded with too much theater for one evening. Although, of the pieces performed, it was one of the cleverest segments, the audience did not respond to it as enthusiastically. The play is set in the New Orleans apartment from A Streetcar Named Desire, seven years after the end of the original play; Blanche and Stanley are still in the apartment. However, Durang incorporates into his play characters and theatrical devices from throughout theatrical history with very pointed humor.

Desire, Desire, Desire’s reception lagged because the entire Durang performance was too long. There was no weak link in the performances during An Evening of Christopher Durang, but both the audience and the performers would have benefited if the Evening had included less theater because they would have been able to better appreciate what they saw. As it was, the performance was entertaining but overwhelming.

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