Director Jon Kretzu spans this spectrum with Fewer Emergencies and Betty’s Summer Vacation, a pair of plays now running in repertory at Defunkt Theatre under the name “States of Emergency.” Last year, Kretzu directed two seminal works of homosexual theater. This time, he’s chosen works that tackle modern-day violence, exploring how it can be shrouded in fake optimism or sensationalized by entertainment junkies hungry for the next headline.
Told in three loosely connected acts, Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies examines suffering, mental illness and domestic gloom among the affluent. The characters lounge comfortably around a table as they tell their stories, fielding questions and making edits as they go. This “Who’s on First?” style of dialogue jars at first, but it eventually serves to highlight that the two main speakers—a defensive housewife in the first act and a suburban dad in the second—aren’t mentally stable. Scenic details amplify this sense of precariousness, such as spilled wine that later becomes a pool of blood, and lighting that casts the entire theater, including the audience, in a deep shade of red.
The standout in the cast is Steve Vanderzee, who captures the calm menace and instability of a suburban father who becomes a school shooter. As he stalks around the classroom, he often stops and offers a sad half smile, or looks off into space, his eyes flitting dangerously. When he speaks, his disjointed thoughts reveal his instability: “Wait. No. Yes. No. Don’t help me. Help me!”
Still, the play also has some plot points cloaked in a cheerful sheen, which leaves audiences with an appealing, if unsettling, ambiguity.
There is no subtlety, however, to Betty’s Summer Vacation. Christopher Durang has called his 1999 play a commentary on the “tabloidization” of U.S. culture and the media’s focus on violence and gossip, particularly the highly publicized celebrity trials of the late ’90s.
The story focuses on Betty and her friend Trudy, who decide to share a beach home for the summer. There they meet their roommates: Keith, a quiet guy with a mysterious hatbox, and Buck, an overbearing horndog who would have loved Snapchat—he flaunts dick pics to anyone who will look. The melodramatic landlord, Mrs. Sizemagraff, also comes to stay, and together they ignite a series of horrifying events, from a rape to a castration to a beheading, all leading to a fake TV trial.
As all this unfolds, a laugh track echoes from the ceiling. These cackles encourage Buck to hump a bench as a come-on to Betty, and at another point the laughter eggs on Mrs. Sizemagraff when she leaves the house to snare a man. So when the voices suddenly burst through the wall like zombies and turn out to be three unkempt TV addicts whining, “Entertain us, please,” and demanding more violence, it’s not much of a surprise.
This is black comedy at its most pointed, which is effective in making an argument about sensationalism, but it overwhelms more than it enlightens: It’s just as likely to incite frozen terror among audience members as they hear a rape happening offstage as it is to prompt dark laughter, as when Betty finds a castrated penis on ice in the fridge.
Despite skilled performances, the play lacks characters worth your empathy. As Trudy, Kelly Tallent brings to her role a curious, delighted and almost childlike demeanor, but also a sense of derangement, and Vanderzee as Keith is a creepily sweet serial killer. But Durang draws his characters too much like Judge Judy caricatures—I felt lonely and alienated as these alarming events played out.
If Betty’s Summer Vacation is a swift blow to the belly—it’s all pain, no gain—Fewer Emergencies is like an emerging bruise that slowly expands and changes hues. Dodge the punch; weather the blemish.
SEE IT: Fewer Emergencies and Betty’s Summer Vacation run in repertory at the Back Door Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays through June 14 (no show June 6); see defunktheatre.com for complete schedule. $15-$25 sliding scale Fridays-Saturdays; “pay what you can” Thursdays and Sundays.