If you don't mind waiting a full act for it, you'll find that Christopher Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation (Hat Trick Theatre's latest) actually has a lot to say about the American obsession with scandal and crime as sources of entertainment. In fact, the satire in act two of Vacation is so incisive, you can almost forget how pointless act one was, how many of its jokes fell flat, and how even its most original gambit — the existence of a live "laugh track" coming from the ceiling of Betty's vacation cottage — seemed destined to mean nothing.
All that changes in act two, when the three figures making the laugh track actually materialize in the flesh and start demanding all the horror and humiliation that the other characters can muster. Now, it turns out, the play does have a point after all; now we're reminded that shock and scandal have become part of our daily nourishment, and that from O.J. Simpson to Monica Lewinsky to the ghoulish reports on Patrick Swayze's cancer, we have become a nation of Peeping Toms, ravenous for the Inside Story no matter how dreadful or shameful.
"Chop off his dick," shout the voices of the laugh track, "chop off his head, chop him into hamburger." Or "I want to see Hugh Grant in bed with a prostitute." Or, most tellingly of all perhaps: "Tell us a bedtime story. Soothe us. Soothe us." As Don Henley put it in "Dirty Laundry," "We all know that crap is king." Durang might add: And no one's complaining.
But then there's that first act. It's largely bereft of meaning. At best, all act one does is introduce us to the crew sharing a beach cottage in an undisclosed location; at worst, it goes for laughs with uninteresting caricatures and tiresome stereotypes. First, there's "normal" Betty (April Bender), who just wants to enjoy the sun and the ocean — she's as sure to have her expectations shattered as is that conventional couple in the Rocky Horror Show. Then there's Trudy (Betty-Jane Parks) — the endlessly chatty victim of sexual abuse — who apparently has wandered in from a Nicky Silver comedy, and Mr. Vanislaw (Greg Morgan), the flasher you might have first seen on the old Benny Hill TV show. There's Buck (Jonathan Cho), the macho sex maniac who only speaks to announce how horny and available he is, and Keith (Phillip Gulley), the alleged serial murderer, whose job during the act is redundantly to appear dangerous.
There is one exceptional character in this panoply, and that's Mrs. Siezmagraff (the superb Jessica Alexander), owner of the cottage, mother of Trudy and an utterly sensible woman ("He's been beheaded," she says thoughtfully. "There's no point in re-attaching his penis anymore"). And then there are those voices in the ceiling (Carol Robinson, Nancy Morgan and Chuck Wilcox) who not only laugh at the right and wrong times, but also explain why they're laughing, and conduct brief conversations with the other characters. In act one, all these characters, the laugh track included, seem like so many effects in search of a cause — any cause. At intermission it's hard not to feel that the play is a failure.
And then act two begins, the three characters making the laugh track burst through a wall in silly black outfits (designed by Connie Lamarca-Frankel), and Durang's play is, finally, about something. The Laugh Track's insistence on having a Court TV experience leads to a very funny trial in which Mrs. Siezmagraff plays three roles, and eventually Betty is fighting not just the craziness of all her cottage mates, but the will of the laugh track for melodrama and gore.
Here the play even takes on Pirandellian resonance: Is it possible that all the characters are creatures of the laugh track, crafted by its — our — demand for blood and circuses? Is Keith a murderer because the audience insists on murder for its entertainment? Was Trudy abused because no one will buy a ticket if she wasn't? Thanks to director C. David Frankel — who just barely gets us through act one — act two is a seriously comic success, and we leave this Hat Trick production happy and stimulated. Not only is Vacation not a flop — it may even be important.
Here's a test: Do you recognize the name Lorena Bobbit? If so, this play — act two of it, anyway — is relevant to you.
And yes, the good stuff is worth the wait.