Christopher Durang’s last play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” premiered at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton in 2012 before moving to off-Broadway, then to Broadway, where it won the Best Play Tony award. Since then, it has been produced at many other theaters throughout the country.
The McCarter is currently presenting the premiere of another Durang comedy that it commissioned, “Turning Off the Morning News” — directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann, who also directed yet another commissioned Durang premiere, of “Miss Witherspoon,” at the McCarter in 2005. But this is a very different animal from “Vanya …” — darker, more abstract and less funny, with the “fourth wall” occasionally broken. I didn’t like it nearly as much as “Vanya …,” and if it has a similarly thriving post-McCarter life, I’ll be very surprised.
At the start of the play, Durang, audaciously, has one character, Jimmy (John Pankow), calmly announce that he is depressed, and thinking about suicide, or perhaps a mass shooting. His wife, Polly (Kristine Nielsen), is not about to stop him; she fills most of her time with rambling, tangent-filled monologues that suggest she may be out of touch with reality.
“I could have been a famous author on Amazon!,” rages Jimmy, a truck driver who has been fired after falling asleep at the wheel. He dons a pig’s mask and leaves for the mall with a pair of rifles. “Should we call the police?” meekly wonders his teenaged son, Timmy (Nicholas Podany).
Against all odds, Timmy seems more or less normal, though he has his own set of problems, including being bullied in school. The play’s three other characters are this family’s neighbors, who are a bit more normal, too (at least they’re neurotic, rather than psychotic): nosy, hypochondriacal Rosalind (Jenn Harris) and new-to-the-neighborhood Clifford (Robert Sella) and Salena (Rachel Nicks). Clifford and Salena are friends, and not a romantic couple; Clifford’s wife and child were recently killed … by a truck driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Everything adds up to a world gone mad, as well as a world that has the bland, mundane flavor of a TV sitcom. (Designer Beowulf Boritt cleverly gives the set a bright, cheerful, cartoonish look, and frames it in a way that makes it look like we’re watching the action on television.)
Despite the snappy visuals and Durang’s boldness, though, there’s very little dramatic tension here, and not enough laughs.
I supposed Durang is making some points about the way insane behavior — as filtered through the morning news and other forms of mass media — has become normalized in contemporary society. But we all kind of knew that already. And as a result, “Turning Off the Morning News” winds up being less newsworthy than I hoped it would be.
“Turning Off the Morning News” will be at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through June 3. Visit McCarter.org.
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