'Darkly funny' satire closes 2nd Story season

By F. William Oakes
Posted 5/3/18

#5- The next generation of parents meet their newborn. (L-R Frank Iaquinta and Jen Michaels)#55- A lively teacher conference. (L-R Kerry Giorgi, Jen Michaels)#77- Nanny and the proud new parents meet …

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'Darkly funny' satire closes 2nd Story season


#5- The next generation of parents meet their newborn. (L-R Frank Iaquinta and Jen Michaels)

#55- A lively teacher conference. (L-R Kerry Giorgi, Jen Michaels)

#77- Nanny and the proud new parents meet their child. (L-R Maureen Bennett, Michelle T. Walker, Matt Gorgone)

'Darkly funny' satire closes 2nd Story season

By F. William Oakes

Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre is celebrating Spring in a wild and crazy way as it presents Christopher Durang’s wild satire “Baby with the Bathwater” . What is inferred from that play’s title is “all or nothing” and that’s emblematic of that 2nd Story style that patrons have come to know and love in it’s nearly twenty year history here in town. Grand productions, simple productions; but always a great story.
   Sure, sometimes one might say “what did I just see” and ask one’s wife to explain it, but then finds that the work of the theatre artists begins  after you’ve left the theatre, because you’re thinking about what you experienced all day, the next day and into the next week.
  That is the power of theatre, my friends, and that is why 2nd Story Artistic Director Ed Shea does the wide variety of plays he does; unlike other people in power, he wants you to think. And laugh.  Ponder, wonder and be engaged. And recognize yourself and your life onstage there, ‘cause that's what it’s all about.
  And, oddly, it is the satirist who makes ourselves recognize ourselves most acutely. Which brings us to our play’s author Christopher Durang. He’s won Obies, he’s won the Tony Award for Best Play, he is wildly, darkly funny and is often described, truthfully, as “absurdist”, “satirical”, and “tragical-comical-contemporary”, appellations that seeming dismiss the fact that you can’t write satire unless your feet are well planted in deep, dark ground.
   Shakespeare’s Hamlet described the theatre artist as one who “holds a mirror up to nature”; Durang is chief among those American dramatists who holds a fun house mirror up to nature; point is his exaggerations and distortions would not hold true - and, more importantly, simply would not be funny- if they were not grounded in an all too crazy reality that often can simply drive us to distraction.
    That world reflected in that fun house mirror is ever changing, how can a satirist keep up? Well, by writing about the universal; social mores change in every generation, but some things, like crazy families never change.
   That is Durang’s great strength. He is ever adept about writing, with razor sharp wit, about living in and being warped by, an absolutely insane nuclear family. It’s the life he survived as a smart and precocious young man and as he grew older he learned,with ever greater assurance as a playwright, how to put the “fun” into dysfunctional.
   That’s the theme, and also the deep, highly recognizable enjoyment that runs through his plays. Indeed, in the early days of 2nd Story Theatre many of his play, “Betty’s Summer Vacation”, “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”, “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” and “Desire, Desire, Desire” were all done at 2nd Story.
In closing the season with this one the theater seems to be looking back upon it’s roots even as it evolves and continues to make many changes. I recently sat down with 2nd Story Artistic Director Ed Shea and actress Maureen Bennett about the process of creating “Baby With the Bathwater”.
   “Satire”, as Critic, Playwright and Director George S. Kaufmann once famously said “is what closes on Saturday night.” Topicality is the death of satire, this is a play written when Durang was a young man, it premiered in 1983, making it a quarter of a century old now. Society is ever changing, how well does the play hold up now?
   “Well dysfunctional families never go out of style”, says Director Ed Shea, “and Durang was always ahead of his time. Though the subjects and the ideas of his plays were often ripped from the contemporary headlines, his subject matter, which includes ideas of gender, the understanding of the inner self through therapy, how we deal with addiction, all of what he writes about is amazingly prescient to the way we live today.”
  And it is, he says, essentially a “memory play. the structure of the play spans 30 years in a mere and fun filled hour and a half.”
Indeed, the saga of screwed up kids and screwed up parents is as old as Sophocles and Greek Tragedy, the difference with Durang is that he makes it darkly, and recognizably funny  There is one monologue in the play that, wildly, spans 12 years of therapy “and the amazing thing” says Ed Shea,” is to watch that process of discovering freedom. The ‘young man’s unpacking the baggage if his own life. And in rehearsal we have found, in this very layered and, for all it’s laughs, in this nuanced play, that we are unpacking and ever finding new things to discover about this play. In performing this Durang family satire we can readily see our own lives.”
   Comedy and drama share this in common: messy lives are so much more interesting. “And it is a studied mess with this play”, says Shea, “abstract and fun like the painters Pollack and Rothko but with biting punchlines and the Playwright advising us how to clean up our own mess!” Satirists have ever been the best teachers.
  There is too, again prescient of our all too hyper-realized lives, the awareness these characters of Durang’s seem to have that they are actually in a play; there’s a slyness that shapes their ends, rough hew these as the playwright will. Irony and self awareness are never too far apart from each other in play’s of Christopher Durang.

   That’s part of the point of this playwright’s aesthetic, one readily found in this play. His plays are too easily described
as wacky satires, in fact what he writes is what Ed Shea describes as “drama as an extremely serious comedy.” That this is a balancing act is what it’s all about: a fun and very broad comedy measured out against a very subtle and acute awareness of life. Our protagonist here, that grownup “baby” is a victim of lifelong imbalance, the trick is to try to and stand straight on the teeter-totter of life and achieve a necessary balance.
   The exact details of what this particular teeter-totter entails I am wary to divulge. I hate giving out plot points and story details to an audience who has not yet seen the play, that’s what you go to the show for. Suffice it to say that a man is born to wacky and unstable parents, and as he learns to deal with this hilarity and a certain insanity ensues. How he copes is what this comedy is all about; we all grapple with the dangerously uncertain in life and that’s what makes this satire, for want of a better term, universal and timeless.
   Durang was at the forefront of late 20th century playwrights in creating an onstage cinematic theatrical vision, with short, staccato scenes, jump cuts and characters seemingly appearing, as they do in children’s tales, out of nowhere, but, like Mary Poppins, fully formed with a mission.
  To that end Shea has devised to make the transitions in a play filled with short scenes fun, sound effects and light projections are utilized and the set, as befits a young man brought up by childish parents, is comprised of many giant baby blocks. A play pen atmosphere is created and it is quite telling in this tale of a man trying to make sense out of and decipher his life, that each block is naturally emblazoned with an alphabet letter: the building blocks of language and understanding.
   He has also assembled a stellar cast, full of 2nd Story stalwarts and talented newcomers. Maureen Bennett, who plays the mother in this play, is back to RI after a long absence. She was however a part of 2nd Story at the outset of it’s Warren inception, taking classes from Ed Shea before appearing in many plays here, including Durang’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation.” She’s thrilled to be back. “Learning from Ed is an insightful professional honor” she says, adding that though she’s appeared in plays elsewhere, “being in a play here  is just so much fun to do and I don’t want to to end.”
  Her director concurs about how much apt fun it is to work with her in a play like this one. “There’s something about Maureen that just fits this playwright’s vision perfectly, an essence that’s just right. Maureen brings a larger than life energy that is just so right for “Baby With The Bathwater.”
   The very vital power of live theatre is that it can present, for our edification  and enjoyment, a glimpse of the ineffable; that which we can inuit more than readily understand intellectually. It is something that  Christopher Durang, Ed Shea and his merry band of actors here understand quite well, how to best present, as Shea describes the experience, “an incongruity that eventually becomes cohesive.” The experience of “Baby with the Bathwater” is one that will, Ed Shea promises, have you talking and thinking about your own lives well after your done laughing at the show. “The great thing about Durang” says Ed Shea, “is that he helps you get through the dark maze of life — but with a spoonful of sugar!”
“Baby With The Bathwater” runs now through May  27 at 2nd Story Theatre in Warren. See listings for details.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.