The first thing one might notice about Jen Silverman’s new play is its incredibly long and intentionally absurd 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 Read About Shackleton And How He Explored The Antarctic?; Imagine The Antarctic As A Pussy And It’s Sort Of Like That. This wordy heading is projected right above the simple bare-bones set.
One should keep an eye out for those projections, courtesy of projection designer Caite Hevner, as they grow increasingly more explicit in their absurdity and general anxiety.
Running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Oct. 7, Silverman’s new comedy is a promising new work from an intelligent, irreverent voice that still needs some degree of fleshing out.
A play seemingly about self-actualization, five women, each named Betty, meet through circumstance, friendship and the “thea-tah,” all of them mired in their own existential dreads of choice.
Betty 1, played by Dana Delany, is an Upper East Side socialite with a lot of rage who can’t seem to shake the feelings of discomfort caused by a terrifying world. Betty 2, here embodied by the ever-talented Adina Verson, is as pent-up and repressed as one can potentially be without exploding from the internal strife. Betty 3, played by the rapturous Ana Villafañe, works at Sephora but has no interest in remaining a sales girl for the rest of her life. Lea DeLaria’s Betty 4 just wants to work on her truck and go for a ride with Betty 3. And Betty 5, played with a calcified edge by Chaunté Wayans, is about to fall for someone they never expected to fall for.
The material Silverman mines from this confluence of Betties is enough to fill the theater with plenty of laughs. Set designer Dane Laffrey’s deceptively basic set is an unexpected contributor to these laughs, a bare black box with a yellow grid of boxes full of surprises comprising the ceiling. On one hand, it’s a guaranteed giggle factory, but on the other, it is an oddly apt metaphor for how humans perceive objects.
Of course, whether the set is meant to be one or the other is a little bit difficult to parse out in this production, directed with ease by Mike Donahue. When this show pulls out its jokes, it brings the house down, but the sections that are a bit more straightforward feel somewhat thin. The latter includes the weird, feel-good song sung by an unexpected sixth character in the show.
While the text isn’t afraid to veer into darker territory, such as when Betty 2 discusses suicide with her hand puppet, the show could use some deeper explorations of the emotional territory it just barely touches upon.
It is not that there is any lack of emotion — all of the Betties are rich in their hilarity and sadness — it just seems as if Silverman was not sure how to expand upon the emotional material.
The story zips past like the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, with refreshing, wholesome takes on what it means to live today. This is a play crackling with wit, silliness, bare-bones honesty and plenty of feeling.
Comedy, however, cannot simply sustain itself on the funny times, though this play is one of the rare examples that comes quite close.