When I first heard about Jen Silverman’s feminist piece, “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties,” I assumed it was about women’s empowerment in the age of the “Me Too” movement — an angry polemic against a president bent on rolling back women’s reproductive rights after grabbing them by the pussy. I was only partly correct.
To be sure, this sublime, absurdist comedy champions women’s empowerment in a male-dominated world. But it was first staged just before the rage-inducing 2016 presidential election and prior to the burst of revelations of famous men in powerful positions abusing women.
This work is obsessed with female genitalia, but in a good way. The full title is “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.”
We witness the Betties examining their privates with handheld mirrors. In fact, the word “pussy” is mentioned more than 40 times over the course of the brisk, 90-minute piece.
The collective rage felt by these Betties certainly has urgency. Betty #1, expertly embodied by Dana Delany, is a rich, subjugated housewife who lives on the Upper East Side. An alcoholic news junkie, she is not only angry about the state of the world (dire stories about deadly Lyme disease, octogenarian suicides, housewives who have AIDS) but also at her smug, domineering husband. She discovers boxing as a safe outlet to unleash her fury.
Betty #2 is a downcast, mousy housewife — played with tender pathos by Adina Verson — who yearns to shed her inhibitions and roar like the lion she was meant to be.
The feistiest of the bunch is Betty #3, a high-femme, bisexual Latina fed up with being mistreated at her job at Sephora who takes control of her own narrative by becoming a theater director and YouTube star. Ana Villafañe brings a brash authenticity to the role.
Then there’s Betty #4, a socially awkward butch lesbian (she prefers the term “queer”) played by a droll Lea DeLaria, who tinkers with truck engines, guzzles canned beer, and seethes about being ignored and not fitting in.
Finally, there’s Betty #5, played with quiet finesse by Chaunté Wayans (yep, she’s part of the comic Wayans family dynasty), who self-identifies as a “gender-non-conforming, masculine-presenting, female-bodied individual.” Although she shows no outward signs of rage, she does seem to have the hots for Betty #1, a student at the boxing gym she owns.
Given the Pirandello-esque slant of “Collective Rage,” succinctly describing the plot is as pointless as it is impossible. Let’s just say it involves Betty #3 recruiting the other Betties to act in her “play within a play” (“5 Betties in Search of Themselves,” perhaps?). Naturally, the rehearsals are a chance to uncork more rage. And plenty of laughs.
Under the attentive direction of Mike Donahue, this is a crisply paced production with smart flourishes that heighten the delirium. Dane Laffrey has devised an artful, minimalist set where large props literally drop from the ceiling. The jumbo proscenium becomes a screen where outrageous, extended sentences are projected, serving as witty intros to each new scene.
This absorbing, crazy quilt of a play is more than just a series of goofy sketches. Each of these Betties is a richly articulated, often vulnerable, full-fledged character. As with these Betties, “Collective Rage” urges us to muster the courage to hold up a mirror, reach deep within, and break out of our comfort zones so we can be the best version of ourselves possible.
COLLECTIVE RAGE: A PLAY IN 5 BETTIES | MCC Theater | Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. btwn. Bedford & Bleecker Sts. | Through Oct. 7: schedule varies | $49-$99 at mccth
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