An Edinburgh Festival sensation inextricably plunked down in the heart of the West End, “Betty” is the sort of solo show that makes one immediately nostalgic for “Shirley Valentine”: At least all Willy Russell’s heroine did was talk to walls.
By contrast, the eponymous Betty Buchanan (Geraldine McNulty) of Karen McLachlan’s solo play has a thing for her washing machine, which she has taken to riding in orgasmic delight that so inanimate and impersonal an object can induce so fully vibrating a high. (And you thought “The Goat” was weird.) Before long, Betty, a 49-year-old Scot, is on the way to becoming an appliance fetishist, as mundane phrases like “spin cycle” take on all sorts of new and scintillating meanings.
On that evidence alone, “Betty” might sound like a particularly mad sketch from a bygone episode of “The Carol Burnett Show,” and McNulty — leaping into the West End, one is tempted to say, suds first — has a squinty-eyed charm that must no doubt be as appealing on TV as it comes across on stage. (The actress has an extensive list of TV credits.) Think of a somewhat loopier, Scottish-accented version of Kathleen Chalfant and you’ll get the measure of a warm-eyed presence who deserved her opening-night ovation even as the play itself leaves one looking on agog.
“Betty” began in 1999 at Edinburgh’s annual arts jamboree, where it must have gone down a treat with those avid festival theatergoers who seem to gauge each entry’s merits solely on the basis of running time. But at only 75 minutes, the conceit still seems overextended and even patronizing, leaving one wondering what a more dangerous performance artist, such as Londoner Bobby Baker, might have done with material that essentially plays it smutty and safe.
Before Betty can direct her affections elsewhere — no vacuum cleaners, praise be, come into play — she is wallowing in guilt, which neither her local doctor nor a priest do much to assuage. (The latter’s response is to demand the removal of underwear as filthy, he argues, as poor Betty’s abject soul.) At that point, Betty embarks upon an ostensibly cleansing pilgrimage packed, it turns out, with enough sexual deviants to power a Screw magazine orgy. And so the faithful of the world are revealed to be self-flagellating and (in the script’s terms) “self-pleasuring,” as well — which still leaves Betty wondering where to direct her orgasms: toward washing machines, sex or, you guessed it, God.
McLachlan probably intended her play to have the force of a (literally) cleansing parable, an anti-religious diatribe that comes to some sort of, uh, climax as Alice Power’s appealingly unadorned set flies up to reveal an expanse of freezing sea. And so Betty finds herself “covered in spume” — no prizes for guessing the sound-alike word that comes to mind — and attempting her own absolution on the way to a liberation that won’t threaten the longevity of “The Vagina Monologues” several streets away.
Director Kathy Burke is better known as the Cannes prize-winning actress from the Gary Oldman film “Nil by Mouth,” though she has been distinguishing herself on the other side of the footlights for some years now. (Her Royal Court production in April of Nick Grosso’s “Kosher Harry” remains one of this year’s quiet gems.) Enough women, producer Katharine Dore included, are involved in “Betty” to suggest that its power to speak volumes may exist for some. I returned home, oddly enough, to discover that my washing machine wasn’t working, which proves that sometimes the theater truly does have the last laugh.