Dana Delany in ‘Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, is a unique feminist comedy leaning precipitously toward farce. It celebrates, among other things, a part of the female anatomy that the characters prefer to call the pussy, speaking it perhaps 50 times during the play’s 90 minutes. In fact, Silverman even provides a sub-subtitle connecting her play to both pussies and Shackleton’s exploration of Antarctica.
Now getting its Off-Broadway premiere by the MCC after earlier stagings in Washington, D.C., London, and Los Angeles, Collective Rage is an episodic, semi-absurdist, tongue-in-whatever look at five women named Betty. Each is situated at a different place on the feminine lifestyle and gender spectrum, from posh to prol, from bombshell to butch. Sure to gain attention from the gender specialists, it’s cute and quirky but, despite the frequent bursts of laughter, somewhat shy of hilarious.
Betty 1 (Dana Delany, TV’s China Beach, sleek, silly, and sincere) and Betty 2 (Adina Verson, Indecent, perfectly blending comedy and pathos) are presumably straight, well-off, Upper East Siders, married to bores. Betty 1, fashionably femme, eventually hooks up with her heavily inked boxing trainer, the black, “genderqueer (masculine-of-center)” Betty 5 (Chaunté Wayans, of Wayans family heritage), recently out of “rehab.” Betty 4 (Lea DeLaria, doing her Orange Is the New Black thing), a tattooed “butch lesbian,” shares Betty 5’s passion for ink and trucks. Her eye, however, is on the glam-femme, Latinx lesbian Betty 3 (Ana Villafañe, On Your Feet, a sassy knockout sometimes speaking at indecipherable Mach speed), working at Sephora but with bigger things in mind.
Pulling these disparate Betties together is Betty 3, who, after her first visit to the “thea-tah” (which is how everyone pronounces it) to see what she calls Summer’s Midnight Dream, decides to write, direct, and star in her own “devised” production of Shakespeare’s Pyramus and Thisbe scene. (Or Pyramid and Thursday, among other possibilities.) The Betties’ rehearsals, while roughly mirroring the naïveté and egotism of Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals, allow them to make individual discoveries and transformations regarding their womanhood.
The title’s “rage,” individual or collective, proves rather tame. Silverman’s characters are more frustrated or disillusioned (with life, their mates, their careers, etc.) than furious at some identifiable systemic entity. Their situations are universal enough for there to be a similar play about five Bens. Each has her own story, of course, perhaps the most thoroughly and entertainingly examined one being friendless, repressed Betty 2’s. When Betty 3 holds a dinner party and gives each guest a mirror to examine themselves “down there” (which Betty 3 instructs is located in “the cooch-ular region”), Betty 2 has an epiphany. Later, when she plays Lion, hear her roar.
Mike Donahue stages the play with clockwork élan, helped considerably by Palmer Heffernan’s soundtrack of pounding pop and original music. Dane Laffrey’s spare set, expertly lit by Jen Schriever, sits under a low, hanging, marquee-like ceiling from whose underside, divided into compartments, props and furniture come hurtling on cue. Its façade is a perfect screen for Caite Hevner’s title projections, which are sometimes so long they appear in sequential phrases. Even then it’s occasionally hard to read them before they fade.
Wearing the eye-catching costumes of Dede Avite, each actress offers a masterful performance that helps to cover the play’s general lack of substance or focused point of view. Silverman’s cartoonish people, though, are invested with enough honesty to help us suspend our disbelief, even when we’re forced to accept how childlike and ignorant they often are.
Now that you’ve come this far, you may or may not be enlightened by the play’s full title: Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; In Essence, A Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School, and You read about Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic? Imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That. Sort of.
Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through October 7
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, Theater Life.