by JK Clarke
Note: If you are the sort of person who is offended by candid discussions of female genitalia and sex in general, and by the rampant use of the word “pussy,” you should probably stop reading now. And you most certainly shouldn’t see this play. Though in reality, you probably need to see this play more than anyone else.
Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties bills itself—through supertitles—as a “Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration” of the “Pussy” which is likened to the Antarctic and its exploration by Shackleton. It’s a curious metaphor since, really, only one of the five characters is truly exploring “that” uncharted territory and because, well, the implied frigidity is a bit unfair. However, said explorations in the play are both farcical and in earnest, and each of these women take journeys within themselves. This MCC Theater production, playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre extended through October 7, is the story of five New York women, all quite different from one another—and yet all named Betty—who attempt to re-define themselves and break away from self- and society- inflicted stereotypes. Conveniently, their lives intersect dramatically over the course of the play.
The Betties are propelled into motion when Betty 3, Ana Villafañe (who played Gloria Estefan in last year’s On Your Feet!), a highly sexualized, bisexual Latinx, attends the “Thea-Tah” for the first time (on a date). Though she clearly is mesmerized by the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a name she continually discombobulates— and despite not really understanding it (“. . . it was like, in kind of an English? But not an English anybody speaks?”), it compels her to become an actor . . . and a writer, director, producer and casting director. She decides she wants to stage a production of Midsummer’s play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe.
Betty 4 (Lea Delaria, looking like and carrying the delightful deadpan timing of Drew Carey), a butch lesbian and the most self-assured of the bunch, is mystified by Betty 3’s fascination with Thea-Tah. She’d rather work on her truck (and here there’s a clever and subtle reference to the troupe from Midsummer: the Mechanicals – get it?), and tinkers away—along with a fellow Betty—on a great big engine suspended from the ceiling: “My asshole is cultural. I’m not payin’ eighty-nine dollars for anything that won’t go on my truck.” Nonetheless, she has a crush on Betty 3 and so joins the production. They are eventually joined by Betty 2 (Adina Verson), a wide-eyed naïf in a long, sexless marriage who has recently (at a dinner party in an earlier scene that was more like a Betty Dodson seminar than a soirée with these Betties) been encouraged by Betties 3 and 4 to examine her “pussy” with a hand-held mirror. The experience for the forlorn Bettie 2 is transformative and she becomes obsessed with coming out of her shell.
Betty 1 (Dana Delany), a cliché, wealthy Upper East Side housewife, enraged with her philandering husband; and Betty 5, Chaunté Wayans (whose stand-up comedy chops show up in a strong stage presence; and yes, she’s related to those Wayans), also join the production: B5 as the Wall, B1 as the Moon. Betties 1 and 5 have just met at gender-queer Betty 5’s boxing gym, where Chardonnay-swilling Betty 1 has decided that she’s going to exorcise through exercise her marital frustrations. Despite their vast difference in background and sexual preference, they become sweet on one another.
Betty 3’s play is a fiasco, of course, but the five women begin to sort out their problems, finding identities more suited to their inner selves. While the same-name device and several other staging elements (e.g. chairs falling from the ceiling) and clipped dialog lend a surreal dimension to Collective Rage, bringing to mind Pirandello, Beckett or even Sartre, it is ultimately a straightforward, more easily accessible play than its predecessors. Despite occasional lulls, Silverman’s dialog, staccato and often hilarious, helps deepen and evolve the five Betties. Dane Laffrey’s set and Dede Ayite’s costumes add festive, whimsical elements to Mike Donahue’s strong direction. Wayans, Delany and Verson’s delightful performances make it pop all the more.
There’s no Puck meddling in this Midsummer off-shoot, but if there were, the fairy wouldn’t be likely to close with the classic line, “If we shadows have offended . . . “ There are no apologies here, just a final song from Betty 2’s pussy, who lets us know it’s “okay to not know things.” We’re here to explore. And what a wonderful and enlightening exploration it is.
Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties. Through October at The Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, West Village). www.mcctheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus