WILLIAMSTOWN - Where's the line between "dated" and "classic"? Judging from the success of the wacky, poppy "
But then there's "Beyond Therapy," which since its 1981 off-Broadway debut has gone on to Broadway and then to countless stagings around the country. It's probably Christopher Durang's most crowd-pleasing play.
Despite some expert comedic work by director Alex Timbers and his cast, however, the current production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival feels - well, anything but current. Durang's needy singles and narcissistic therapists are caught in an awkward limbo: too familiar as targets of satire to feel fresh, and too removed from contemporary life to seem believable. Maybe part of the problem is the show's very popularity: How can we rediscover it if it's never gone away?
That said, the Williamstown cast is unfailingly fun to watch. Kate Burton, in particular, invests the spacey therapist Mrs. Charlotte Wallace with a wild, almost childish delight in her own whimsy that lifts her beyond cliche. To watch Burton wag a stuffed Snoopy toy in the air as she "barks" approval to a patient, or to observe her divinely distracted expression as she gropes for the ordinary words she keeps losing in favor of "porpoise" or "dirigible," is to experience the apotheosis of absurdist comedy.
Darrell Hammond, meanwhile, brings an appropriate sleaziness to the other dreadful therapist onstage, Dr. Stuart Framingham. If there's more than a touch of Hammond's "Saturday Night Live" impersonations of Bill Clinton, so much the better: That blithely oblivious conviction of his own irresistibility is just what Dr. Framingham needs.
The therapists's patients, insecure Prudence and conflicted Bruce, are less extreme caricatures but still more sketches than people. Katie Finneran and Darren Goldstein walk the line pretty successfully: They find the laughs in these lonely people but also suggest a shading of actual pain. Matt McGrath, as the live-in lover who's understandably chagrined by his boyfriend Bruce's insistence on dating women, similarly dances successfully along the border between real feeling and surreal absurdity.
Walt Spangler contributes a slick, sophisticated set that rotates from restaurant to therapist's office and back again; the only mystery is how the relatively small Nikos Stage can feel so cavernous in the empty spaces that surround this central turntable. Well, another mystery would be why anyone thought it would solve that problem to pump endless fog into the empty space.
I'd be tempted to conjure some metaphor about the mists of time, but that would contradict the single best line in the play, which Prudence gets to utter to Bruce: "Don't say pretentious things. I get a rash."
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.