Christopher Durang is generally considered a playwright. There’s good reason. Several of his plays have won awards—Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, The Marriage of Betty and Boo and Betty’s Summer Vacation, for three instances.
I should include, of course, the Tony-Award-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But it may be that much of Durang’s works shouldn’t actually be categorized as plays. Examined closely, they’re sketches, which makes Durang often operating as a sketch writer, indeed an honorable profession as writers for the exalted Show of Shows series or the Saturday Night Live writing staff or the Monte Python troupe demonstrate.
Take the above-mentioned Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. The opening monologue, among the funniest ever written for anything, is really a rib-tickling, thigh-slapping character sketch followed by a clichéd segment about rebellious kids. Even the acclaimed Beyond Therapy has the air of a string of cute skits that eventually don’t add up to a bona fide comedy but remain valid laugh getters.
By that token, sketch writer Durang is at it again—this time not too successfully—with Turning Off the Morning News, now at the McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theater, where it’s directed by Emily Mann in the best way she knows how.
On entering, ticket buyers see a series of homes resembling birdhouses that recede into the distance. As designed by Beowulf Boritt, they’re charming to behold. Since, however, Durang’s name is on the script, the show-wise will guess that seeming Levitt-town complacence will eventually, if not immediately, be exposed in an abrasive satire on disturbing current affairs.
As the façade of the house at the center disappears to show a homey interior, out stomps Jimmy (John Pankow) to talk about his hatred for people. He fumes about killing them. He then breaks the fourth wall to congratulate the audience for being where it is and not on his side of the stage lip. And there’s much more fourth-wall assaulting to come—much more meta-theater stuff at which patrons are invited to laugh. Some actually do.
When the scowling Jimmy retreats, wife Polly (Kristine Nielsen) emerges carrying a large potted plant that she soon puts down and forgets where she put it—directly in front of her. When she suddenly spots the plant again, Polly again addresses the audience. “Why didn’t you tell me?’’ she says to someone in the front row.
She goes on to natter about her happy family, which includes 13-year-old son Timmy (Nicholas Podany). To the audience she points out that Podany is older than 13, but the intention, she confides, was not to cast an actual 13-year-old.
Of course, Polly, Jimmy and Timmy are not a happy family, certainly not when Jimmy reappears wearing a pig mask and carrying two AK 15s (or similar rifles) in a blue plastic bag. He announces he’s on his way to a mall for a shooting spree.
Somewhat more happy, at least at first blush, are neighbors seen when the Jimmy-Polly-Timmy home revolves on Clifford (Robert Sella) and Salena (Rachel Nicks), a couple who aren’t a couple, but a white man and black woman who’ve chosen to live together after each has survived a trauma.
Salena, hoping to make friends with anyone nearby, has met Rosalind (Jenn Harris) at a bus stop. Rosalind, invited over, arrives in a Ku Klux Klan-like pillowcase in order to minimize the precancerous basal cells that have been showing up on her face. She does lift the pillowcase from time to time.
In time, the six characters interact and even leave their suburban abodes when Jimmy, armed, has left for the mall a second time and after a news channel is heard reporting a mall incident.
If while reading this review, you have chuckled at the plot details, assume that Turning Off the Morning News is for you. It wasn’t for me. Durang may have told himself he’s commenting on a 2018 American society where serial murders have become a horrifyingly commonplace, but he’s really writing in an unedifying vacuum.
To breathe some life into the pallid proceedings, Durang and Mann are counting on the cast members to do their utmost. As the potential mall mauler, Pankow has the toughest assignment and makes no headway. Sella, as a man trying to regain his mental balance through music, makes the most of his assignment. Podany, playing a boy who’s picked up the nickname Polly and so is quick to anger, does have moments. The usually hilarious Harris gets nowhere with her Rosalind. Nicks has the bland role and is fine at it.
Then there’s Nielsen. My bet is that over the years more than one person has quipped that Kristine Nielsen was born to play Durang. The man himself might have said so. She’s graced at least four of his works.
Clearly, it’s her fluttery mannerisms that are wanted—mannerisms she can suppress when necessary. Here she obliges bigtime—and with the usual results. Those who’ve never seen her before love what she does with those hands, with those arms, with that kinetic body. Those who’ve seen it before have seen it all before.
Yes, Nielsen delivers in her fashion, right up to the curtain call, when she comes out in a gown for some reason to provide yet one more lame yuk. But she alone can’t save a bad cause. What’s more, she shouldn’t be expected to.
Turning Off the Morning News opened May 12, 2018, at the McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlin Theatre and runs through June 3. Tickets and information: mccarter.org