What’s the collective noun for a group of Betties? Based on Jen Silverman’s play, “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties,” perhaps “a rage of Betties” would suit. When these five Betties gather, they roar, ruminate and revolt, each experiencing a transformation thanks to theater (and each other). With touches of absurdity, this play about self-discovery and change can feel thin and representative at times, but the 90-minute journey remains a wacky romp underpinned with emotion.
The Betties come from different worlds, but they find their way to each other. Betty 1 (Dana Delaney) is an angry, rich, married woman from the Upper East Side who throws a dull dinner party with perky Betty 2 (Adina Verson) in attendance. Betty 2 is all plastic smiles masking loneliness. Betty 1, intrigued by the charismatic Betty 3 (Ana Villafañe), invites her to her soiree. Betty 3 works at Sephora, is bisexual, and is not from the sexless world of Betties 1 and 2.
Betty 3 can’t believe you can have a party without talking about sex, so she hosts one of her own which includes hand-mirrors and some vaginal exploration. A reticent Betty 2, with mirror in hand, is the odd-man-out at this party, facing down the gregarious Betty 3 and her queer friend from growing-up, Betty 4 (Lea DeLaria). Rounding out the Betties is genderqueer Betty 5 (Chaunté Wayans), who meets Betty 1 when Betty 1 directs her pent-up frustration into boxing lessons from Betty 5.
What brings the Betties all together is a play. After seeing one, Betty 3 becomes obsessed with becoming a star through (in her pronunciation) the “theatuh,” so she devises a work based on the play within a play from “Summer’s Midnight Dream” (her mangling of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”). The other four Betties eagerly get swept into her directorial and dictatorial maelstrom, and the hasty production (and Silverman’s craftsmanship) gives all the characters an opportunity to understand themselves better via their “theatuh” personas. Betty 5 sees how much of life she’s lived like her character of “the wall”; Betty 2 explores her inner lion.
It’s easy to view the Betties as types, but Silverman fights against that. Betty 3 is divalicious and enjoys sex, but she’s vocal that this doesn’t define her. Betty 5 is a player, but maybe she wants more. Betty 1 first presents as a white-wine guzzling housewife, but she blossoms when someone finally sees and understands her. The masks these characters wear in life slip as they connect.
The play has a chapter-like structure with long, comically convoluted projection intertitles to preface each scene. Mike Donahue’s colorful production is mostly zippy, although the scenes where it’s just the subdued Betties, 4 and 5, can drag. Still, the director embraces the play’s unpredictability. Objects fall from the sky with comedic flourishes. A Tetris-esque grid ceiling pulses warm yellow lighting with the beat. Digital music, and maybe even the hint of lions roaring, peppers the fluctuating sound design.
The ensemble as a whole is strong, but Verson stands out. She lets the cracks show as her Betty’s understanding of the world crumbles. Her smiles fade. The sadness she’s been hiding comes to the fore. Her progression of self-exploration is heartbreaking, then liberating.
Verson has to perform several scenes in dialogue with her own hand (as a puppet), which she makes darkly funny and deeply sad. She must also portray another part of Betty’s anatomy — I’ll let you guess which — and she manages it with dazzling confidence and luminosity. In that role, she’s transformed, projecting the inner Betty that Betty 2 has been working to uncover. It’s this arc of the play that is the most satisfying, and Verson does skilled work throughout.
While Villafañe’s Betty draws the others in with her self-assuredness, the actress flashes vulnerability and softness when needed. She’s a delectable diva, but we see the panic behind her eyes. DeLaria, meanwhile, can punctuate the single syllable “oh” with unexpected, deep disappointment. It’s an understated performance that leans towards the quietly forlorn.
With moments of hilarity and poignancy, “Collective Rage” offers a broad spectrum of queer voices rarely seen on stage, and Silverman and these performers make sure we hear them each distinctly.