The full title of “Collective Rage,” Jen Silverman’s playful, bawdy, and episodic genderqueer/feminist/lesbian comedy about five women named Betty, is 47 words long. Only once does it include the word “pussy.” That’s not true of the play as a whole. In 19 scenes over 90 minutes, the characters say “pussy” far more than they say, or express, “rage.”
Silverman has a lot of fun with this word. Each of the scenes also has its own title, which is projected line by line on a built-in screen that is as wide as the stage, and looms above it. These projections are reminiscent of the comically prolix and pompous chapter titles in an 18th century picaresque novel, except the scene titles in “Collective Rage” often include the word “pussy.”
For example: “6. Bettys 3 and 4 Discover That Highbrow Things Are Just Things That Seem To Be About Other Things When They’re Actually About Pussy”
But “Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties” etc. is not (just) out for some schoolyard impudence. The five good actresses playing the Betties deliver some memorable moments of oddness and hilarity.
Dana Delaney, familiar to TV viewers as Katharine in Desperate Housewives, portrays Betty 1, elegant, educated and rich, married to an upwardly mobile executive. She is the only who clearly expresses her rage. She is so upset by the odd and ugly news of the world that she decides to take boxing lessons. “I’m very rich. And very powerful. And very impatient,” she tells her boxing instructor. “And very frustrated. And very unhappy. And very alcoholic. (And also still very rich.)”
Adina Verson plays Betty 2, a scared little mouse, in an unsatisfying marriage, but she doesn’t seem even to realize it’s unsatisfying: “Charles is very nice.He’s very considerate? We read in bed together? Like, he’s on his side of the bed? And he reads Hunting & Fishing. And I’m on my side of the bed? And I read Ladies Home Journal.” Verson is given the silliest and most amusing tasks. Example: “7. Betty 2 Acts Out Her Feelings With A Puppet Because She Has No Real Friends.”
Ana Villafañe, best-known for originating the role of Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet,” gives us Betty 3, a sassy Latina lesbian who works at Sephora until a lady friend takes her to the “thea-tah” and she quits her job in order to become an actress
Lea DeLaria, the talented stand-up who is now best known for her role in Orange is The New Black, is Betty 4, a butch lesbian who spends a lot of time working on a truck engine.
Chaunte Wayans is Betty 5, who is (as one of the other Betties explains) a “gender-neutral male-presenting queer… person.” She too likes to work on her truck (yes along with Betty 4), and she owns a boxing gym – yes, the one that Betty 1 signs up for.
The five Betties interact with one another in various ways. Some are old friends. Some are meeting each other for the first time.
Betty 1, 2 and 3 attend a “dinner party” in which they inspect their vaginas (though that’s not the word used); this is a first for Betty 2. She’s freaked out enough about this to talk in a subsequent scene to her hand, forming it into a hand puppet. But it also changes her life.
Betty 4 is jealous of long-time friend Betty 5 and what appears to be her attraction to Betty 1.
Betty 3 decides to put on a play, which she doesn’t realize closely resembles the Pyramus and Thisbe scene in A Midsummer Nights Dream, and she enlists the other four Betties to participate. Betty 2, the skittish one, is the lion. Betty 5 is cast as the wall – a role that changes her life. One of the scenes is entitled “9. All of The Bettys Have Their First Collective Experience of Rage, Also Known as Rehearsal,” which makes me think that the playwright is having fun with our expectations of what rage means (At one point, we understand the word to mean fashionable, as in “all the rage.”) In any case, the scenes where the five Betties are involved in the play-within-the-play provide an excuse to satirize the pretensions of theater people.
There is a sense during the course of the 90 minutes that the scenes pop up at us at random — an impression helped along by Dane Laffrey’s fun set, in which any item any Betty needs – a telephone, party balloons, a piece of furniture, a car engine, — drops from the ceiling so abruptly it can feel alarming.
But when “Collective Rage” ends, with a pairing-up that feels like the too-pat resolutions in Shakespearean comedies, Jen Silverman’s point becomes clearer. Each of the Betties has been in pursuit of happiness, which they were able to achieve only by changing their assumptions about life. The very ending introduces a new character played by Adina Verson – whose identity (which I won’t reveal here) is a surprise, but not really. The character sings a song about the state of the world that manages to be both funny and moving, childish and sophisticated, optimistic and uncertain, and also, like the rest of the play, a bit shocking.
And now, here is the full title, as projected on the screen as we sit down for the show (but isn’t on the Lucille Lortel Theater marquee, because it wouldn’t fit):
“Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties; In Essence, A Queer And Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School And You Read About Shackleton And How He Explored The Antarctic?; Imagine The Antarctic As A Pussy And It’s Sort Of Like That.”
MCC at Lucille Lortel
Directed by Mike Donahue
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design and original compositions by Palmer Hefferan, projection design by Caite Hevner
Cast: Dana Delany, Lea DeLaria, Adina Verson,Ana Villafañe and Chaunté Wayans
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Collective Rage etc. is scheduled to run through September 23, 2018