Review: Beyond Therapy (Understudy Theatre)

understudytheatreVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 28 – Feb 14, 2015
Playwright: Christopher Durang
Director: Johann Walraven
Cast: Tel Benjamin, David Hooley, Andrew Johnston, Rebecca Scott, Nadia Townsend, Jasper Whincop

Theatre review
Christopher Durang’s sensational Beyond Therapy was first staged in 1981, at a time when psychotherapy and counselling were just arriving into the consciousness of the mainstream. Unlike the tendency today to class every colourful mode of behaviour and thought pattern as dysfunction of one sort or another, the play emerges from a period which paid attention to the peculiarities of human expression to locate machinations that might be able to provide explanations to our ever-present existential angst. The inevitable interrogation of normalcy, and the dismantlement of conventional expectations takes pride of place in Durang’s meditation on life for the thirtysomethings, but Johann Walraven’s direction of the piece does not always adhere to that sense of chaotic ideology. Walraven’s exploration of the play comes from a realistic perspective, trying to find coherence in what is essentially absurd and wild at heart. His need to find understanding is entirely reasonable, but the approach causes a muting of what could have been a comedy that guffaws at a much higher octane. The show is about being crazy, and although Walraven does not forget that fact, his interest in grounding the action in a place of logic sometimes gets in the way.

Performances by the cast of six are committed and focused, but an air of restraint permeates the atmosphere. The material requires no straitjacket, and when the actors find moments of abandonment, the production clicks right into position. Nadia Townsend plays Dr Wallace with a kind of Saturday Night Live sensibility, playing for laughs rather than earnest authenticity and her approach works well. There is no need for actors to provide explanation for Durang’s words because they are loud and clear on their own. They should, however, bring an energy to the stage that embodies a manic universe that the text is keen to reveal, so that its raucous comedy can be unleashed. Chemistry in the work is honest and resolutely present, especially in a sequence that sees Rebecca Scott’s character Prudence taunting the patrons at a restaurant. The ensemble loses its self consciousness and takes on an exciting unhinged humour, delivering some of the biggest laughs of the show.

Themes in Beyond Therapy are timeless and universal. It talks about growing up and marriage, within a context that investigates the meanings of sanity and social acceptability. Great art attempts to excavate the layers of fictions that we place between our daily lives and a sense of truth that seems to lie in an irrefutable core somewhere. We go about our business moving from one day to the next with the niggling suspicion that most of what we do is farcical, and entirely laughable if not desperately pointless. Yet, most of us would rather play the role of the sane, persisting with the anxieties and uncertainty of a life done in appropriateness. We believe that the alternative is out there, but we are afraid of what it might present, especially when madness begins to look no more closer to truth than our private falsities.