The nuttiness of the 1980s therapy craze may no longer pack the same comedic punch it did when Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy” first bowed in 1981. But the Williamstown Theater Festival’s season opener on its second stage is still a dizzy and often delightful ride. Nearly 30 years later, the picture of the disengaged therapist who needs more help than the patient is now almost a commedia type. Yet Durang’s deranged comic voice, the sudden mood pivots and his fickle characters are still distinctively amusing. Its last-minute existential ambitions notwithstanding, however, the play only adds up to a loopy trifle wedded to its period of narcissistic self-examination.
“It’s the content that matters, not how it’s said,” says one character. But in Durang’s daft, verbally surreal world, the word games are indeed what matter most.
Bruce (Darren Goldstein), a bisexual prone to weeping and looking for new experiences, connects through personal ads with Prudence (Katie Finneran), a woman who doesn’t know what she wants. It’s clear from their first date that each of these needy people veer toward insanity.
“Someone should have you committed,” says Prudence when Bruce begins to unspool in unseemly fashion.
“I’m not the one afraid of commitment,” he snaps. “You are.”
The two are, however, committed to their therapists, who live in a world that is half-Kafka, half-Marx Brothers. Prudence’s Dr. Framingham (Darrell Hammond) oozes smarm and predatory manipulation. Bruce’s therapist (Kate Burton) celebrates all that is touchy-feely. Both are totally bonkers and provide silly fun as Durang scores satiric points at the expense of pop psychology.
“In what ways am I unique?” Bruce asks his therapist.
“Oh, I don’t know, the usual ways,” she responds.
The narrative expands when Bruce’s lover, Bob (Matt McGrath), enters the picture, upping the therapeutic ante.
In this production, neatly staged by frequent Off Broadway helmer Alex Timbers, several performers have an especially grand time of it.
Burton brings a madcap spirit to her sense of idiotic authority as the free-spirited, free-association therapist who is always searching, desperately, for the right word. (“Did I say porpoise? What word do I want? Porpoise. Pompous. Pom-pom. Paparazzi. Polyester. Pollywog. Olley olley oxen free. Patient!”)
Hammond (“Saturday Night Live”) creates a sly and silly character of self-centered sleaze — but plays it more for the camera than the stage.
The leads manage their characters’ schizophrenia with comic grace. Finneran captures the right amount of kookiness and sincerity as the perpetually bewildered Prudence. Goldstein also balances pretension and earnestness with a wicked twinkle.
McGrath is comically petulant as the wounded gay lover but even funnier as a reactor to Burton’s bombast. Bryce Pinkham scores in a small but effective part as the Godot of waiters.
Walt Spangler’s efficient rotating set nails the interchangeable look of the era, with its rooms filled with chrome, neon and abstract art, while Emily Rebholz’s costumes also successfully suggest the period and its characters. The show should provide a pleasant summer diversion as it moves to the Bay Street Theater in Long Island following its Berkshires run.