Some of 'The Durangs' work, and some don't


He's the playwright who put the "dis" in dysfunctional.

No, not Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard, though they certainly contributed their share of "dys."

The playwright in question is Christopher Durang. He's the one who's had the nerve to laugh at the others -- and at himself.

The best example is his one-act play "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls," a parody of Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" that is one of 10 Durang playlets in AXIS Theatre's production of "The Durangs."

In Durang's revisionist version, Laura, Williams' shy, crippled, spinster sister, has become Lawrence (Randy Hadaway). Instead of glass animals, Lawrence collects glass swizzle sticks, which he christens with names like "Q-Tip" or "curtain rod" or "thermometer."

All the unspoken inferences in Williams' subtle, poetic dialogue have been replaced with blatancy. "There's nothing wrong with your leg, Lawrence honey," says his mother (Kimberley Lynne), as she deals him a swift kick.

Most of this works so well that it takes only a light cue -- a spotlight on brother Tom (Kenneth Ewing), leaning against the side of the set as he prepares to deliver the Durang-ified version of the play's final soliloquy -- to evoke laughter.

But unfortunately, as in many of these sketches, Durang overdoes it in "Belle." For example, making Lawrence's "feminine caller" (Mary Ann Walsh) so hard of hearing that she misunderstands almost everything that's said to her is simply a cheap laugh.

Though "The Durangs' " excesses aren't as severe as the over-inflated skits "Saturday Night Live" has aired in recent years, there is something of the flavor of "SNL" or, to be more precise, of a college spoof in several of these works.

This is particularly true of "DMV Tyrant," a skit about the frustration of dealing with the department of motor vehicles; "Canker Sores and Other Distractions," about a divorced couple whose reconciliation is stymied when he (Ewing) begins wincing from a canker sore, and she (Lynne) howls in pain after getting something in her eye; and "Wanda's Visit," about a visit from an incessantly chatty, promiscuous old high-school flame (Lynne), who refuses to leave until she is literally dragged away.

The sketches are arranged so that the darker comedies come after intermission, and at least two of these -- "1-900-Desperate," about the lonely losers who dial a 900-number on a Saturday night, and "One Minute Play," about a prostitute and a depressed john -- are not only expendable, but raunchy enough to merit an X-rating.

The evening ends on a high note, however, with " 'dentity Crisis," a no-holds-barred visit to the ultimate dysfunctional family -- mama (Lynne) not only has the hots for her son (Hadaway), but the son can't decide whether he's the son or the father or the grandfather or perhaps a French count. The sanest member of the family appears to be the daughter (Walsh), since she's the only one who realizes her home life is nuts. She, of course, is also the only one in therapy. Durang wrote a play a while back called "Beyond Therapy." This could be called "Beyond 'Beyond Therapy.' "

"The Durangs" opens with a monologue called "Mrs. Sorken," in which a white-gloved, velvet-hatted matron (Mary Alice Feather) welcomes us to the theater. The word "drama," she explains, comes from the same root, "dran," as "Dramamine," hence, "We go to the drama seeking the metaphorical Dramamine that will cure us of our nausea of life."

It's an excellent intro for the sketches that follow (in some cases it's better than the sketches that follow), and Feather conveys just the right flustered but well-meaning presence. For that matter, all five cast members -- under the various direction of Terry J. Long and Terri Ciofalo -- fare well in multiple roles almost as diverse as the detritus cluttering designer Gil Givens' multipurpose garage setting.

One caveat in addition to the X-rating: In her intro, Mrs. Sorken tells us: "Act I is theater parodies. Act II is not." The playbill repeats this description, but "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls" turns out to be the sole theater parody. Purists like this critic tend to be put off, or at least confused, by such false promises. Though it's too late to reprint the program, excising this line from Mrs. Sorken's spiel would help -- as would excising a few of the more self-indulgent skits from this overly long, but often bitingly humorous, production.

'The Durangs'

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: Through March 2 at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinee at 2 p.m. March 2; no performance Feb. 13

Tickets: $12 and $14

Call: (410) 243-5237

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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