Based on their first date, it’s pretty clear that Bruce and Prudence aren’t made for each other. Within seconds of meeting, Bruce is scarily enthusiastic, compliments Prudence’s breasts, plans their life together, and talks about Bob, his gay lover. Prudence professes her hatred for gay people and before long, he’s sobbing and they’re screaming at each other. And when is the waiter going to take their order?
But clocks are ticking and options are limited, so these two 30-somethings just might have to figure out a way to make it all work.
It all must have been so shocking in 1981 when Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy” made its debut. In the 21st century, however, references to homosexuality, personal ads, and crazy therapists don’t pack much punch. There are laughs in Princeton Summer Theater’s staging of the adults-only comedy, running through July 31, but the jokes are repetitive and the story gets stuck before the play finally gets to its predictable conclusion.
The play is set in the 1970s, which you can tell from the muted reds and browns of the set, the clothes, and the phones with dials. Bruce (Jack Berenholtz) and Prudence (Claire Helene) are searching for love in New York City. She wants to finally meet the right man, and he wants a family.
They each place personal ads in the newspaper on the advice of their respective therapists. The problem is, their therapists are more unstable than their patients. Stuart (Christopher J. Beard) sleeps with his patients, Prudence included, and has sensitivity and anger issues. Charlotte (Katherine Grant-Suttie) hugs a stuffed dog during sessions and forgets the simplest words. (She says “porpoise” when she means “patient” and “filing cabinet” instead of “fish bone.”)
Charlotte has Bruce write another personal ad (one without a shred of truth to it) and before long, he and Prudence are meeting again at the same restaurant. Are they the only two people reading those ads, or is fate at work?
“Beyond Therapy” is as dated as Stuart’s sky-blue bellbottoms. Most troubling is the play’s take on homosexuality. Prudence’s casual hatred of gays is never judged or followed up on. And Bob isn’t a terribly deep character, defined by his jealousy and neediness.
Bob is supposed to be funny, but it’s hard to laugh at a character as the man he loves blatantly looks for someone else in front of him, as if his current relationship isn’t legitimate. At one point, Bob belts out “Anything Goes” with flamboyance and gusto. Jokes about gay men liking show tunes have been tired for at least a decade.
Not that Bruce is totally inconsiderate of Bob, he can live in the garage above the Connecticut house Bruce and Prudence will live in. Bruce is a risk-taker, you see, ready to dive into a new life while Prudence is more inclined to play it safer, she’s even afraid of vanilla ice cream.
There just isn’t much here other than Bruce and Prudence longing for love and dealing with their therapists. That would be fine if the play were funnier, but after that intriguing and funny first date, the laughs are too sporadic.
Most of the cast does fine work; it’s the song that’s the problem here not the singers. Helene is perfectly convincing as Prudence, who’s fearful of ending up alone, hears her biological clock ticking, and is desperate for Mr. Right (or at least Mr. Acceptable). She delivers one-liners with zing, contorts her face into hysterical shapes during a breakdown, and has a charming playfulness about her as Prudence makes digs at Stuart for his inability to satisfy women.
Berenholtz is just as good as Bruce. His enthusiasm is off-putting at first, but it fits the character. The actor comes close to taking things over the top, but as we learn more about Bruce, we’re able to buy into his desire for a family.
Berenholtz is given an early challenge, as he is on stage as the audience enters the theater. On opening night, he spent at least 10 minutes on stage prior to the show’s start, seated at a table with his back turned to the crowd. He fidgeted in his seat, fixed his hair and bounced his leg with nervous energy, waiting for his date to arrive. Eventually he was grooving to the Bee Gees.
Putting Bruce on stage early is a smart move by director Sarah Outhwaite, putting the audience into the scene and making the opening smooth when Prudence finally arrives.
Grant-Suttie is another standout as the flaky therapist Charlotte, who’s been married several times, all to men with the last name Wallace, and who uses her stuffed dog to bark approval when her patients make a breakthrough. With her blond hair and hipster clothes, she looks like one of the Brady girls.
Jeff Van Velsor’s set design features walls bordered with thick, rounded lines for a ’70s look. For most of the play, the center of the stage consists of the restaurant setting, bordered by the two psychiatrists’ offices. Costume designer Kimberly Saunders must have traveled back in time to find some of the getups. It’s all very groovy, but this play needed more substance.
“Beyond Therapy,” through Sunday, July 31, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University Campus. $20 to $25. 877-238-5596 or www.pst2011.org.