Murder, mutilation and rape propel the plot in a new Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department production that prides itself on its own perverseness.
Directed by Cal Poly professor Al Schnupp, “Betty’s Summer Vacation” employs vulgar language and violent acts to comment on our collective obsession with reality television and tabloid journalism. The play, which opened last Thursday, continues this week.
Betty (Karlee Benner) has fled the city with her talkative roommate Trudy (Maddie Pomaro) in search of peace and quiet at a summer timeshare on the Eastern seaboard. But it’s obvious from the start that her goal may be elusive.
Soon after Betty and Trudy’s arrival, the first of their roommates comes through the door.
Quiet Keith (Jake Malloy) carries a suitcase, a hatbox and a shovel, and he’s oddly evasive about his reasons for bringing those items.
“I hope you’re not a serial killer,” Trudy jokes nervously. His strained smile does nothing to reassure them.
Next to arrive is their boozy, muumuu-clad landlady, Mrs. Siezmagraff (Sarah Gamblin, superb), who happens to be Trudy’s mother. She’s mourning the death of her alcoholic, abusive husband, who Trudy claims molested her for years.
“She thought her father was a sex predator, but he was just drunk,” Mrs. Siezmagraff insists.
Then comes Buck (Jacob Corsaro), a beer-swigging frat boy whose every action is motivated by his raging libido. Unapologetically horny, he’s happy to show off photos of himself in various states of arousal.
The cast is complete with the arrival of Mrs. Siezmagraff’s dinner guest, Mr. Vanislaw (Kyle Palazzolo), a “derelict” flasher in a dirty trench coat. She found him snapping pictures in the women’s changing room.
But they’re not the strangest characters in “Betty’s Summer Vacation.”
A trio of disembodied voices (Rachel Murphy, Jennie Casey and Antonio Mata) provides running commentary as the plot develops. Serving as scandal-obsessed stand-ins for the audience, they transform from passive observers to active participants over the course of the play, their rapacious pleas of “Entertain us!” growing louder with each new revelation.
The action unfolds on an aqua-blue set designed by Peggy Marshall-Amundsen, an understated exercise in suburban tackiness matched by Thomas John Bernard’s beach-inspired costumes. (Televisions huddled under a beach umbrella and a wall bristling with satellite dishes are nice touches.) Clint Bryson doubles as lighting and technical director.
A biting indictment of sensationalistic media outlets and voyeuristic viewers alike, “Betty’s Summer Vacation” won four Obie Awards when it opened off-Broadway in 1999. Although Christopher Durang’s pitch-black comedy still serves up lurid shocks and some genuine laughs, its edge has clearly dulled over the years.
Part of the problem is the play’s reliance on outdated references to the likes of Lorena Bobbitt and Joey Buttafuoco. While mentions of Michael Jackson’s molestation trials still resonate, it’s doubtful college-age audience members would recognize the name Clarence Thomas, let alone associate the Supreme Court associate justice with a sexual harassment scandal.
Another issue may be that playgoers have grown more blasé about brutality in the age of TMZ and Twitter. It’s possible that shock value, like the value of currency, depreciates with inflation.
That said, “Betty’s Summer Vacation” should come with a trigger warning for audience members sensitive to strong language or frank discussions of child abuse, sexual assault and violence. Despite its at-times puerile tone, this is a play for grownups.
If you go
"Betty's Summer Vacation"
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$20, $12 students and seniors
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org