‘Beyond Therapy’ helps Bunbury christen new home But production needs more sessions

Bunbury: photo by Craig Schneider  Actors (from l-r) Rita Hight, Todd Haley, Matt Orme, Robert McFarland and Katherine Mapother rehearse a scene just before the opening performance of “Beyond Therapy.”

Bunbury: photo by Craig Schneider Actors (from l-r) Rita Hight, Todd Haley, Matt Orme, Robert McFarland and Katherine Mapother rehearse a scene just before the opening performance of “Beyond Therapy.”

Homelessness is a pretty standard tale of many small theater companies. Few even dare to dream they can find and then actually afford a home stage in a space to be proud of. So it is no surprise that the folks at Bunbury Theatre, after arduously searching for a home for three years, are trumpeting their brand-spanking-new quarters in the extensively renovated Henry Clay at Third and Chestnut streets.

It is a well-deserved boast. The Henry Clay has been stunningly restored, seemingly to its historical grandeur. The marbled lobby extends a grand welcome, but the real gem is the fourth-floor ballroom. With hardwood floors waxed to gleaming perfection, lights slightly dimmed and emitting a soft, flattering glow, it transports visitors back to a more opulent era.

The new Bunbury theater, designed by Steve Woodring, is downright cozy. Upon entering, my companion, a transplant from Los Angeles, and I, from Chicago, both gasped, “I feel like I’m back in the city.” Rounding the corner into the darkened space, the overwhelming impression is one of intimacy. The thrust-style stage is just large enough, neither too cramped nor too cavernous, to house the plays a small company like Bunbury produces. With 150 seats, a full house is nearly guaranteed, and that was the case on opening night last Wednesday.

Bunbury Theatre has embarked so enthusiastically, so admirably, on this new phase of its life that it makes it terribly difficult to utter a single negative toward the company. But its first offering, “Beyond Therapy,” written by Christopher Durang and directed by producing and artistic director Juergen K. Tossmann, flounders under a woefully incoherent vision completely unaligned with that of the playwright.

Tossmann actually tips the audience off to this in his director’s notes: “Durang is pretty specific when it comes to producing his plays. In the back of the text you will find an author’s note, which is 15 pages long. I’ve ignored most of it!” Oh, dear.

If the one who birthed the work has 15 pages of suggestions that might help make the production all the more comprehensible, should the director not pay heed?
Yes, yes, I understand creative license, but the proof is in the pudding: Durang is funny. This production is not. As the lights came up after the show, I overheard a couple behind me say, “Well, that was cute.”
Durang is satirical, chaotic, farcical, crazy even — but cute?

Some of the actors, namely Robert McFarland (Bruce) and Rita Hight (Charlotte), try their best to inject life into the show. Yet the staging squashes their efforts. This show begs for movement, but the actors have been placed in stagnant positions (the two chairs sitting side by side in the therapists’ office, for instance) that make motion difficult if not impossible.

The scene in which Bruce, Prudence and Stuart confront one another is also an example of baffling staging. With an entire stage to utilize, Tossmann puts all three on a tiny platform crammed between a table and the wall. To make matters worse, soon thereafter five characters are herded onto the same little platform.
Moments of possible hilarity are allowed to slip by (for people familiar with the plot, these include the “cookie” bit and the entire scene between Charlotte and Bob). Meanwhile, Todd Haley (Bob) makes a caricature of his role and underestimates the audience’s intelligence by making superfluous facial expressions. On the other hand, veteran actor Matt Orme (Stuart) inexplicably opts to interpret what should be a Lothario, albeit an aging one, into a comatose, shuffling old man.

Even though it premiered in 1982 and includes dated references, “Beyond Therapy” can sparkle. Underlying the zaniness of the characters’ lives and therapy sessions is the very simple and relatable sentiment that relationships are difficult to develop and maintain. Durang elevates events to absurd proportions but still reveals his characters’ humanities. He shows what might happen if we threw social mores out the window and acted on those dark little urges we squelch. Unfortunately, this production brings none of that to light.
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Beyond Therapy
Starring David Despain, Todd Haley, Rita Hight, Katherine Mapother, Robert McFarland and Matt Orme. Directed by Juergen K. Tossmann. Presented by Bunbury Theatre. Runs through Aug. 5. For tickets or more information, call 585-5306 or visit www.bunburytheatre.org.