‘Betty’s Summer Vacation’
is not an entertaining trip

A young woman named Betty dreams of spending a quiet summer vacation on the beach but discovers that there are voices in the ceiling of the beachhouse where she's renting a room, and that she's sharing the place with four very strange strangers. One is an incest survivor who chatters incessantly, another wants to have sex with every woman he meets, a third may be a serial killer. None gives us any reason to care about them. For that matter, neither does Betty.

"Betty's Summer Vacation": Presented at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Kennedy Theatre Mainstage; repeats 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $15; $12 for seniors, military and UH faculty and staff; $10 non-UH students; $3 for UH students with Spring 2004 ID. Call 956-7655.

Although "Betty's Summer Vacation" develops nicely in Act I as a trash-talk satire of the mind-numbing, often tasteless "tabloid television" programming accepted as entertainment in contemporary America, the University of Hawaii at Manoa Kennedy Theatre production of playwright Christopher Durang's sardonic comedy wears out its welcome well before Act II is over. There are some well-written comic bits amid raunchy jokes about rape, incest, genital mutilation, murder and child abuse, but any deeper messages about America's obsessive fascination with such topics are lost as "ACTING!" and some bad costume choices take priority over substance or characterization.

No connection exists between the characters and the audience. The actors' behavior doesn't come across as shocking because it takes place in an absurdist context too broad to be taken seriously, nor are their increasingly bizarre relationships thought-provoking. Playwright Eric Yokomori addressed some of the same ideas with a much clearer and sharper focus in his imperfect but edgy sex farce, "Pleasure," at the ARTS at Marks Garage in November.

IN CONTRAST, the UH take on "Betty" comes across at best as fare for fans of low-brow insult sitcoms. Ely Wyatt Na Ka Ulu 'Aina Rapoza (Buck) gives the strongest and most consistent performance with his excellent comic portrayal of a dim-witted surfer who exists in a permanent state of rut, for whom a collection of photos of his penis serves as an ice-breaker. Rapoza handles the most outrageous bits of dialogue with an oblivious self-confident style reminiscent of a Cheech & Chong character. He earned much of the laughter that punctuated the performance on Saturday.

Stephanie Kong (Mrs. Siezmagraff) adds the other standout comic performance as the insensitive, sexually aggressive widowed owner of the property. Kong excels in an imaginary courtroom scene in which she switches between three characters almost simultaneously. Her ability to do so make it one of Act II's highlights.

Pedro Hara (Keith) combines geeky charm with subtle shades of menace and mental illness in his portrayal of a reclusive young man who Betty suspects may be a serial killer. Nicole Brilhante (Trudy) has less to do in playing a psychologically battered survivor of rape and incest, whose mother accused her of seducing her father, and then seducing another man who also raped her. It's all played strictly for laughs, and a typical comment is that Keith suffered more as a victim of childhood sexual abuse than Trudy did because the act of man molesting a female child is "more normal."

Nate Hayashi completes the cast of crazies as Mr. Vanislaw, a flasher that Mrs. Siezmagraff brings home for dinner after meeting him as he was surreptitiously photographing women in the fitting rooms of a clothing store. Hayashi hams it up so much that the brain-damaged voyeur/flasher/rapist never becomes more than a cartoon character and his increasingly violent behavior merely the fodder for more rape and penis jokes.

Most of the other comic content is also over-the-top. Mr. Vanislaw opens his trench coat during a game of charades and explains that he is providing a clue to the puzzle. And there's a great moment of comic anticipation when Betty and the three voices conspire to trick Buck into discovering a penis hidden among ice cubes in the freezer. Are we laughing yet?

Megan Patton (Betty) anchors the show as the ever-more-vulnerable voice of normalcy. All she wants is to enjoy the beach and the sound of the ocean -- and to escape her mother's relentless efforts to marry her off to somebody or anybody or even a sex addict or a serial killer. Patton does a good job as a low-key comic performer but at no time are we given a reason to care whether Betty lives or dies.

Shawn A. Thompson, Marissa Robello and Adrian Martin are heard but not seen throughout most of Act I as the voices in the ceiling. They function at first as a generic sitcom laugh track, but before long are talking to Betty and her roommates. They become increasingly intrusive and demanding.

In Act II they suddenly emerge from the ceiling to take an active part in the proceedings. It is never clear what these beings are supposed to be in the context of the story: Alien anthropologists? Evil spirits? Figments of the other characters' imaginations? Nor is it clear why Betty and her roommates feel compelled to continue to indulge their strident cries of "Entertain us!" and "We love to laugh" either.

"Betty's Summer Vacation" functions better as mindless, sex-based insult comedy when they remain in the ceiling and loses its comic momentum once they appear. The trio's distracting Act II performance further obscures any serious messages about America's appetite for shock-and-sleaze that Durang may have had, and this production turns out to be a clone of the same vacuous sensationalist TV fare it is supposedly satirizing.

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