Now here’s a true delight: It’s Saturday night in the Tower District. I’m walking down the street and come across a little table set up outside a storefront theater. Sitting at the table is the director himself selling tickets.
The occasion is the inaugural performance of a new Fresno theater company, California Public Theater. The play: Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy.”
This scene makes me happy. Maybe it’s a sense of adventure — even mystery. Who knows what awaits when I walk through that door? It reminds me of times in San Francisco and New York that I’ve sought out little theaters (usually on side streets and far from the lights of Union and Times squares). Some of the best theater experiences I’ve had are in these offbeat spaces.
In this case, I’d say that the idea of experiencing a new theater company outweighed the impact of the performance itself. But there’s some good acting to be found — and a lot of promise here.
Director S. Eric Day does a nice job using the limited stage resources at his disposal. The space, which used to be the Wild Blue nightclub and is now affiliated with the Million Elephant restaurant next door, has been arranged with audience seating on three sides. A makeshift backdrop separates the backstage area. It’s all very intimate. The two big problems are the sight lines — I sat in the second row of the main section on the right-hand side and had problems seeing the action downstage right — and the noise of the ceiling fans. But I’ve seen a lot cruder temporary theater spaces (even in San Francisco and New York!), and I’m impressed overall with the set-up.
The play itself, one of Durang’s early and famous romps from the early ’80s, seems a little tedious to me today. We meet Bruce (the talented Landon Weiszbrod) and Prudence (a terrific Kristen Henson), two New Yorkers trying to find mates, who connect after their respective psychiatrists suggest they try placing personal ads. It turns out that as wacky as the couple is, Prudence and Bruce aren’t as bizarre as their shrinks — one of whom, Stuart (Gary Bufkin), has already slept with Prudence, and the other, Charlotte (Jessica Knotts), uses a stuffed Snoopy to “ruff ruff ruff” encouragement at Bruce.
The whole “personals” theme might have been fresh and funny at the time the play was written, but it seems dated today. So does the therapist humor. Perhaps it’s because our entire culture has shifted into self-help, personal-empowerment mode — and that mocking those efforts has already played itself out.
Weiszbrod and Henson are both adept in their roles, and they keep the play on a smooth and even footing. Their scenes together have a snap and vigor that meshes with Durang’s wry, absurdist tone. In supporting roles, David Manning, who plays Bruce’s gay lover, and Tony Thammavongsa, as an offbeat waiter, have some nice moments.
I didn’t feel, however, that Bufkin and Knotts were as successful in their roles. To me, these are the hardest characters in the show to pull off because they’re so thoroughly steeped in Durang’s sense of pointed satire. The playwright loves playing with and reflecting upon the giddiness and absurdities of spoken language, and I don’t feel as if either the director or actors came close to connecting with this level of the text. Day’s blocking didn’t always help, either, especially in the scenes between therapist and patient.
Still, “Beyond Therapy” has a quirky charm. And while I don’t think the play or the production is the strongest, it’s certainly exciting to be on hand for a new Fresno theater company’s debut. According to the program, upcoming productions for California Public Theater include Edward Albee’s “3 Tall Women” and Yasmina Reza’s “Art.” I’m looking forward to them.
Details: 7:30pm Sept. 18, 19, 25, Oct. 2, 3. There’s one matinee 1:30 p.m. Sept. 26. Performances are at the Million Club, next door to Million Elephant Restaurant & Bar in the Tower District on the corner of Fulton & Olive. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Reservations: Call (559) 907-2676.