When style gets in the way

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

There's a lot of style in the Jen Silverman's play Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops.

Some of that style is really slick and holds things together. The set design feels like a trendy steel beam and brick loft; the bold projections brashly announce each scene; the costume design elegantly gives us a sense of character before the actors utter a word.

This heightened style is carried over into the acting and that's where things begin to disagree.

Collective Rage is a play about five Bettys that form something of a spectrum of gender and sexuality. At one extreme we have the slightly meek and totally girly Betty who's costume could double as a Catholic school girl's uniform. She's an upper eastsider who is married to an out of touch workaholic who neither the audience nor Betty ever sees. On the other end of the spectrum is Betty the black boxer who describes herself as "a non-gender-conforming masculine-identifying female-bodied individual."

To round out our complement of Bettys, there's another white Betty from the upper east side whose husband is very rich and very much having an affair. Then there's the central Betty who used to work at Sephora and at the risk of leaning into the cliche would be our lipstick lesbian. Then our final Betty, who's in love with another Betty (don't worry all the Bettys end up loving another Betty so it doesn't matter too much which one), this last butch Betty likes to work on trucks.

The catalyst and dramatic engine for the play is a lesbian dinner party.

The queer Bettys come together and realize that our femme straight white Betty just may be out of touch with her body and sexuality. They suggest taking out a hand mirror and having a little peek.

Wouldn't you know it she's never really looked and is a little hesitant. You can see where this is going right?

As I overheard in the lobby after the show, "The best parts of that play, Eve Ensler wrote two decades ago in the Vagina Monologues."

That's a bit cruel but not too far off the mark. The challenge with this show is its style is fighting against its message. It's a queer play about getting in touch with your power and sexuality. That would suggest a really grounded direct style of self discovery but that's not what we get -- in either the directing or the writing. We get something a bit over the top with actors playing at characters and stereotypes rather than exploding them. So instead of a play that's really moving, political and empowering its a little too slick -- like a poet who's playing the line endings rather than the soul of the poem.

The closest the play comes is in a final epilogue where Courtney Rackley, one of the white Bettys, sings a simple song,

"This is what I know about the world it's not safe
it's strange and it's lonely
and mean but it's only
cuz everybody's scared
but it's probably gonna be OK"

Given the world we live in right now, this song should move us to tears but the rest of the play hasn't done the work to get us there.

Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops plays at the Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena through March 19.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Anna Lamadrid, Karen Anzoategui and Courtney Rackley  in Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops (Ed Krieger)