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A mixed bag of sketches by Christopher Durang

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Having seen Bare Theatre's Durang Durang last weekend, as well as an online series of telltale photos from N.C. Theatre Conference's recent upper-level confab in Chapel Hill, it's clear that the theater needs its own version of Service Industry Night.

This would be a regular event where drama denizens toss back a few cold ones, let their hair down and send up some of their most (or least) favorite theatrical conventions. Keep it strictly a tonic for the troupes and don't let the critics or the public get anywhere near it.

Playwright Christopher Durang's doubly self-titled 1994 collection of one-acts wouldn't just be perfect for a gig like that; parts of it keep reading as if they came out of such a milieu. Some sketches, it's true, are accessible to a broad audience, such as Durang's take-off on The Glass Menagerie, "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls." But well before the end of "A Stye of the Eye," an overachieving lampoon that manages to bring low two Sam Shepard plays (A Lie of the Mind and Curse of the Starving Class), Agnes of God and Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, the gaffes and gags have largely turned toward theatrical inside baseball. (Among the most delicious of these in Bare Theatre's production: when G. Todd Buker, as a brain-damaged Beth, declares that he's off to star with RuPaul and Charles Busch in Albee's Three Tall Women.) References to French director Louis Malle and Simone Signoret similarly orient and delimit the film-genre farce "Nina in the Morning," while "Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room" is primarily pitched toward the few who've ever wondered what happens when a playwright takes a meeting with a film producer.

Trust me, all of this would kill on a Theater Industry Night. But in front of a mixed but still appreciative house last weekend, I couldn't stop reflecting on two things. Weekly, through most of the 1970s, a group of 10 to 13 writers set a very high standard in topical farce for Carol Burnett's show on CBS. That standard has challenged writers ever since, on shows including In Living Color, MADtv and, of course, Saturday Night Live. Some but not all of Durang's sketch and satirical work reaches that level. "Stye," "Nina" and "Wanda's Visit" all stayed overlong, twisting the knife at least two or three times more than was necessary.

It also bears noting that Durang Durang comes just over a month after one of Bare Theatre's strongest productions ever: Let Them Be Heard, Buker's original adaptation of WPA slave narratives that were staged for the Juneteenth celebrations at Historic Stagville plantation.

Critically, it would be a disservice to set the gravitas of that work alongside the present offering; theatrically, these works originate in entirely different worlds.

But it is a point well worth raising when a company cuts corners in a comedy that it wouldn't in a dramatic offering. On the night I saw it, the noticeably flimsier characterizations in "Southern Belle" contrasted with more solidly constructed characters in "A Stye of the Eye." Julie Oliver and PJ Maske's work in several of the evening's one-acts was notably more robust than thinner characterizations by Whitney Griffin and Jeff Buckner. And under Olivia Griego's direction, the usually dependable Barbette Hunter seemed too rushed through the opener, "Mrs. Sorkin," before ably anchoring "Wanda's Visit."

Though the theatrical field deserves a night off now and then, actors and directors can't afford to take a break just because they're doing comedy. When characterizations are incomplete, it always shows: That's the takeaway from this uneven version of Durang Durang.

This article appeared in print with the headline "All in the family."

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