By Donna Herman
Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties is as smart and unflinching as it is funny. The New York premiere is a riveting rollercoaster, powered by the sensitive direction of Mike Donahue, and the dazzling performances of all 5 Betties. Bravo to MCC Theater for picking a winner, and to canny audiences who look to Off-Broadway for their theater choices.
If you didn’t have an idea of what your evening was going to be like when you arrive, you figure it out pretty quickly. The stage is bare of any furniture, but over the top, in big letters, is projected the following: “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.”
Betty 2 (Adina Verson), who turns out to be the most daring Shackleton of the bunch, is a middle class, repressed and friendless young married woman. Her journey begins with a first time look at her pussy in a hand mirror during a dinner party thrown by Betty 3 (Ana Villafañe). (By the way, if you’re not comfortable with the word “pussy”, this play is not for you.) Betty 3 is a beautiful, volatile, bi-sexual Latinx who is constantly getting into fights wherever she goes. She quits her hated job at Sephora after seeing her first play and deciding that what she wants is a life in the thea-tuh.
The only other guest at this “lesbian dinner party” (titled by Betty 2) is Betty 3’s childhood friend, Betty 4 (Lea DeLaria). Who is, in fact, a melancholy butch lesbian who spends her days working on her truck with Betty 5 and mooning after Betty 3. Her exploratory journey takes her from dreaming to action. Betty 5 (Chaunté Wayans) is a self-described “gender-non-conforming masculine-presenting female-bodied individual. But I’m comfortable with female pronouns.” Fresh out of rehab, she owns her own hole-in-the-wall boxing gym. She’s always been a player, smooth and charismatic, she doesn’t go in for relationships, just hook-ups. But her latest conquest has unexpectedly wormed her way into Betty 5’s heart and she has to explore these new feelings.
But this whole thing started with a dinner party thrown by Betty 1 (Dana Delany). Betty 1 is a very rich, unhappy, Upper East Side wife who operates on rage and stress. She tries to combat the mounting tension (and prove she’s not a, you know, racist) by throwing a dinner party for Betty 2, and the “sassy and no-nonsense” clerk she met at Sephora, Betty 3. But all Betty 3 wants to talk about is sex, and Betties 1 & 2 declare it not a fit topic for a dinner party. At which point, Betty 3 gets real:
BETTY 3: This is a boring-ass dinner party. BETTY 1: That. Is the point. Of a dinner party. BETTY 3: Oh. Okay. Well. In that case, I’m gonna throw my own dinner party.
Betty 1 has a tough journey ahead of her. She is filled with rage and fear and has to figure out where it’s coming from and how to make herself feel better. Dana Delany does a masterful job of staying in the present with Betty 1 and letting each moment happen. As they do with dizzying speed when she goes from calm and proper Upper East Side matron, to screaming and out-of-control, to giggling middle school girl.
In fact, all the actors are superb. Adina Verson absolutely stole my heart with her skillful, sensitive, no-holds-barred portrayal of Betty 2 in Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties. I can only say bravo to a performance that requires the actor to take her character through such painful self-examination when it’s done so well. Ana Villafañe is all fire and flash as the inimitable Betty 3, but utterly believable. She doesn’t pander to the character or dumb her down but plays her with intelligence and heart. Betty 3 is a true Don Quixote figure but Ms. Villafañe’s characterization gives her dignity and importance. Lea DeLaria is perfectly cast in the role of Betty 4. She’s a hoot and a holler and you can’t help but root for her. Chaunté Wayans is a revelation. Yes, she’s one of those Wayans’, but don’t expect a comedian on stage. This is a nuanced performance by a gifted actor. Ms. Wayans gave the role gravitas and a feeling of rootedness that was impressive. You feel that Betty 5 was someone who knew who s/he was. Impressive for a character who was exploring feelings for the first time.
While I’m praising the cast of Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, I have to give a shout out to the talented production team. For playwright Jen Silverman and director Mike Donahue, this isn’t their first rodeo together. So, the choice of a male director for this decidedly female work is not as risky as it seems. Likewise, Donohue and Scenic Designer Dane Laffrey have worked together a dozen times before, which makes this collaboration a gimmee. I know I told you the stage was bare, but I won’t spoil it for you…you have to go see it for yourself.
Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties by Jen Silver, Directed by Mike Donahue
WITH: Dana Delany (Betty 1); Adina Verson (Betty 2); Ana Villafañe (Betty 3); Lea DeLaria (Betty 4); Chaunté Wayans (Betty 5).
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; Production Manager, Steve Rosenberg; Production Stage Manager, Lori Ann Zepp; Stage Manager, Veronica Lee; General Manager, Beth Dembrow; Artistic Producer, Jessica Chase; Casting by Telsey + Company; Publicity by DKC/O&M. Presented by MCC Theater, Robert Lupone, Bernard Telsey and William Cantler, Artistic Directors; Blake West, Executive Director. By special Arrangement with The Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation. At the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., NYC, extended through October 7th. For tickets: Online visit: https://www.mcctheater.org/tickets.html?_ga=2.193225838.2129615230.1536777364-713960981.1535639168. By Phone: OvationTix: (212) 352-3101, or toll free 866-811-4111; 9AM–9PM Mon–Fri / 10AM–6PM Sat–Sun. In Person at the Box Office: The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, Tue/Wed 1-7, Thur/Fri 2-8, Sat 12-8, Sun 12-3.