What If? Productions’ first show of the season, Durang, Durang & Durang is, as What If? promises, “wildly inappropriate,” “outrageous” and “bizarre.” It is also hilarious, well-acted and one of the funniest theater productions you’ll see this year.
If you’re wondering about the triple title, it refers to the American absurdist playwright Christopher Durang. Durang is prolific, with many full-length works under his belt, but he also wrote a series of one-acts, four of which are performed in Durang. With such innocuous titles as “Wanda’s Visit” and “Nina in the Morning” (“For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” is a bit more pointed), these one-acts deal with subjects like an ex-girlfriend who is either a criminal or just insane; an unknown and strangely persuasive visitor at a funeral; a horribly self-absorbed mother with three wretched children; and a surprisingly complete parody of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, with the menagerie replaced by glass cocktail stirrers and the reclusive Laura transformed into a painfully pathetic and earnest boy named Lawrence.
A production of this type can be difficult to pull off, as a series of one-acts can easily become a choppy mess. That Durang avoided this fate so completely must be credited to the actors, who are uniformly excellent even though the plays themselves vary in quality, ranging from pretty funny to truly uproarious.
The evening begins with the weakest of the one-acts, “Wanda’s Visit.” The story of a long-married couple who receive a visit from an overbearing, wacky, and possibly insane ex-girlfriend, “Wanda’s Visit” stumbles along the line separating funny from just plain silly. Most of this is due to Wanda’s character, which is written to be so obnoxious that it is difficult to see her as much more than a stereotype designed to get laughs. The play is saved from drowning in its own ridiculousness by Kyle Barnette and Allison Schnake, who play the married couple and do an excellent job of being the straight men to Andrea Conway’s Wanda. Schnake, in particular, is dead on in her role of the polite but silently stewing wife.
Storm Smith, a What If? newcomer who plays a number of characters including a “willfully retarded” (yes, you read that right) daughter named La-La in “Nina in the Morning,” is also outstanding, stealing the stage in his very first appearance of the night as a soliloquizing waiter in “Wanda’s Visit.” Carri Schwab, as the facelift-addicted and helpless mother Nina of “Nina in the Morning,” hits every note of this clichéd yet remarkable character, from the vapid expression to the trilling, musical, British-accented speech. In this, the most surreal of the four plays and surely the most challenging to act — most of the action happens in Nina’s own memory — Schwab’s animated movements and expressive face keep the audience engaged and laughing whether she is lauding her butler for shooting up her children with pain meds, or recoiling from imagined women jealous of her exquisite beauty.
Durang, Durang & Durang‘s four one-acts share an absurd, comical bent, but it must be mentioned that these are substantial pieces; far from going purely for the funnybone, each play acknowledges the seriousness that slumbers under even the lightest of situations. Durang knows that humor needs the somber in order to thrive. No piece does a more beautiful job of reconciling the two than “Funeral Parlor,” which uses an incredibly awkward funeral mourner to subtly reveal the tragedy behind the laughs.
Theater 99, always an excellent venue, is perfect for this informal production that includes interludes by the ukulele-strumming V-Tones. If this show is indicative of What If? Productions’ coming season, then we’ve got a lot to look forward to.