May 18 2016 01:07 PM

Therapists cause more harm than good in ‘Beyond Therapy’

Ho-hum. Another bleak black box stage. Mismatched chairs, some desks that look like they were borrowed from the MSU Surplus Store, a framed knock-off “Mona Lisa” looking down benignly — is that a smirk?

We soon realize, however, that this simple set is cleverly designed like a three ring circus, led by ringmaster, er, set designer and director Michael Schacherbauer. This circus is Christopher Durang’s iconic 1981 play, “Beyond Therapy,” staged by Riverwalk Theatre.

In ring one, at center stage, we have two desperately single lonely hearts meeting for a blind date. Bruce (Joseph Baumann) is bisexual and living with another man, but yearns for something else. Bruce is awkward, uncomfortable and frenetic, prone to putting both feet in his mouth.

Baumann brings his best comedic work to this role, which is likely his last local production. He’s moving— emotionally moving, yes — but also moving out of town after years of major contributions to local theater. Adieu Joseph, we loved you well.

Baumann is well-matched in this disorganized dance by Shannon Bowen, as Prudence. Bowen, who has only recently recovered from the depths of a lingering sickness, still manages to deliver the goods. Her take on Prudence is sharp and snappy. She captures many of the characteristics of a typical neurotic Manhattanite.

Together, these two create a humorous semi-sexual interplay that invites non-stop laughter. It’s like flipping through an array of New Yorker cartoons at breakneck speed, each one funnier than the one before. Baumann and Bowen play against each other with zings and zaps, stepping on each other’s toes and saying amazingly inept things. The audience ate it up. The blackout after the first scene met was with a rush of appreciative applause.

Ring two: enter the therapists. We’re now in the office of Bruce’s shrink, Charlotte (Emily Clark). What makes this play work is that the doctors, the very people who should be helping the situation, are crazier than the clients. Charlotte appears healthy at first, until she opens up her mouth. We discover that she has eccentricities. She uses inappropriate word substitutions that devolve into something like a strange version of Tourette Syndrome. She uses a hand puppet dog to bark when she expresses approval. Clark delivers her lines with a perfectly psychotic look on her face; her eyes appear to be somewhere else in time.

Flip to stage left, ring three. Prudence’s therapist, Stuart (Joe Dickson), sports hair and beard slicked with Brilliantine, chest hair proudly sticking out of an unbuttoned shirt. Stuart is not so much crazy as he is unethical. He has apparently already slept with Prudence and would like to continue to do so, even while she’s still seeing him for therapy.

Where can things go from here? Not really anywhere, actually. The punch is in the premise, delivered exquisitely by Durang’s lines. It’s like Neil Simon on steroids. But it all ends in a mish-mash, everyone meeting in a restaurant and seemingly living happily ever after — or whatever.

"Beyond Therapy”

Riverwalk Theatre 8 p.m. Friday, May 20 and Saturday, May 21; 2 p.m.

Sunday $12/$10 students, seniors and military
Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700,