Friday, July 15, 2011

'Rites' reveals dysthmic shrink in brutal comedy

Had to go to the dictionary to figure this out. First you’ve got anhedonic, which you can almost suss out from its roots. It’s an inability to experience pleasure from activities that used to give you a charge. Then you’ve got dysthymic, which comes from the word/condition dysthymia, a mood disorder characterized by chronic depression, but not quite as nasty as hardcore depression. So, now that the roadblocks to comprehension have been removed, we can put it all together: “Last Rites,” the new play by Lawrence Hennessey, is about is about “an unhinged, misanthropic, anhedonic, dysthymic jerk of a psychologist.” And we have just one question for the guy who wrote the play, seeing how he’s a shrink and everything: Is the play autobiographical? “I hope not,” he says. Good thing, seeing how this nasty piece of work comes to the understanding that the only way he can get right with the world after one of his patients commits suicide is, well, to kill himself. And, this being the modern world, he’s gonna film it so everybody knows what’s going on. And, oh, probably should mention this: It’s a comedy. A dark comedy, granted, but ... what? Ah, it’s a “brutal black comedy,” says Port director Tim Diering, who will stage the show this month at the Players Ring in Portsmouth. “The actors and crew have a hard time keeping a straight face through most of it ... and yet, it has many elements of traditional tragedy amid all the dark laughs.”

The buzzword these days is “compassion fatigue,” and Dr. Adam Singleton has got it bad, says Hennessey, a Rockport clinical psychologist, who looks just a little bit like Dr. Phil. “He’s empty, the well has run dry, he’s  burned out,” he says. “He’s cranky, crotchety and depressed ... and it shows.” Any other adjectives, doc? Yeah, a couple. He’s also caustic and cynical. And, Diering adds,  he’s also “disgruntled, disillusioned, and despairing ... and very funny.” And a guy with some ethical issues to deal with, but let’s not get into that right now. He’s got enough on his plate. And he also feels a certain responsibility when one of his patients kills himself, he’s got to do something to explain the situation, to make sense of his life before he ends it. Sounds, well, crazy, but it’s clear in his head, anyhow. The thinking, says Hennessey, is kind of like “Fail-Safe,” the 1964 film about a Cold War era showdown between the United States and Russia in which we, oops, launch a nuclear strike against the Reds based on inaccurate information and the only way for us to even the score is to blow up a US city of their choosing. Turns out to be New York. The play is structured as a series of long monologues, delivered into the video camera. Interspersed throughout these soliloquies are flashbacks that sort of tell the story of how he came to be in such a state. The flashbacks are fascinating, because they're scenes filtered through his drug-and-alcohol-addled memory. You're never quite sure if what you're seeing really happened as you're seeing it... or whether it's simply how he's remembering it.   

This is Hennessey’s second full-length in as many years. The first was "96 Tears," a play dealing with the politics and treatment of mental illness that had its first public performance at the North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative in 2009. It got a full production last September at the Actors Studio and at the Players Ring in March. Seven years ago, Independent Submarine founder Gregory S. Moss directed a production of his play "In the Service of the Hittites" at the now-defunct Jimmy Tingle's Off-Broadway. The play, which featured Port first-stringers Paul Wann and Bonnie Jean Wilbur, looks at a prospective shrink who is repeatedly unable to clear the final hurdle, the licensing exam, to begin his career, raising all sorts of questions in the process. The following year, a Lynn theater company mounted a staged reading of "Nuworld," his take on Huxley's "Brave New World" — a "totally out of control" production with hundreds of characters that he says could never realistically be staged, as entertaining as it might be.

The current production includes two actors from “96 Tears.”Alan Huisman, last seen locally as a cross-dressing Catholic pedagogue in “Entree Gold,” the John Minigan play that won top honors at this year’s New Works Festival, plays Singleton. Port regular Kate Bossi plays Adelle Singleton, the doc’s ex. Chris Klemmer, currently performing at the Players Ring in “Portsketch,” a comedy/variety show that is inspired by Saturday Night Live from the ‘70s, but with a local point of view, plays David, Singleton’s son-in-law. Kat McDonough plays Sarah, the doctor’s daughter. Seth Mazzaglia plays several smaller roles in the production.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Player’s Ring will stage Lawrence Hennessey’s “Last Rites” from July 22-31. The production stars Alan Huisman, Kate Bossi with Chris Klemmer, Seth Mazzaglia and Kat McDonough. The show is part of the Late Night Summer Series at The Players' Ring. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 10:30 p.m Sunday “matinees” begin at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $12. The theater is located at 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth, N.H.For reservations, call 603.436.8123.

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