The Playgoer: REVIEW: Miss Witherspoon (Durang)

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

REVIEW: Miss Witherspoon (Durang)

Miss Witherspoon
by Christopher Durang
at Playwrights Horizons

Christopher Durang, to my mind, is one of our last remaining great satirists of the stage. But his new play, Miss Witherspoon finds him a satirist without a target. Oh, there's a faint air of teasing about the culture of therapy and happy pills here and there; a whiff of New Age spoofing in the atmospherics of Emily Mann's production; even a late jab at that perennial Durang foe, Christian fundamentalism, by the end. But really what he's written is another one-woman monologue, here for one of his favorite actresses, Kristine Nielsen, channeling all kinds of rants and neuroses he's been working out for years. It's Laughing Wild again... but without the laughs.

Oh, I wanted to laugh, believe me. I came to the play with much good will, and sustained that through about the first half-hour. And Kristine Nielsen, as that charmingly neurotic put-upon Durang heroine once again, does a lot to get our laughs. But there's a point about halfway through this thin extended one-act where you realize Durang has nowhere to go. In a comedy about reincarnation, essentially, he sure enough falls into the trap of, well, repeating himself.

The premise is that Nielsen's character (not really named Witherspoon for reasons too complicated to go into right now) is so unhappy with modern American life that she wants out--and when faced with a surprisingly Hindu afterlife she fights any "return" to the death, as it were. Do we really need another set of wacky jokes about St Peter at the Pearly Gates? Didn't I see this in an old Looney Toons? More to the point--is this what we need Durang to be writing at this moment in time?

What's most disappointing (even if we allow Durang the folly of his premise) is how uninventive he is with it. The comic possibility would seem to be an endless variety of reincarnations, one more ludicrous than the last. (Let alone the potential for social satire that could ensue from such sketches.) But instead he sticks "Witherspoon" with some dreary scenarios--she's a baby, she's a dog, she's a neglected child of poor white trash--and then repeats them. But whatever plot there is is just an excuse on which to hang the monologues of Witherspoon/Nielsen (/Durang, really), which recall the "rants" we have loved from Laughing Wild and Beyond Therapy, but that's just the problem. They're the same rants. I notice a giant sucking sound of air leaving the theatre when Nielsen went--completely tangentially--into a riff on the crucifixion that seemed like outtakes from Sister Mary Ignatius. Now I'm not one to always complain about an artist repeating himself. (Hey, it ain't broke don't fix.) But here, it frankly seemed tired.

I'm surprised the play survived a preview process at the McCarter in Princeton (where Emily Mann's flat but adequate production here originated) and has actually gotten charitable reviews. (Like these major critics here and here.) That no one could apparently talk to Durang about the basic glaring problems of the play throughout two sets of previews is troubling. Again, I say this as a great fan, but I hope Christopher Durang can still write a play about something, or at least one that's really, really funny.

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