Over the course of its self-consciously frolicsome 90 minutes, Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties grew on me. Then, after I left the theater, it shrunk on me again. I found myself trying to describe it to a friend and getting more and more frustrated with it as I did so. It’s not that Collective Rage is a very bad play; it’s that, for this moment, it’s a very normal one. It’s a good example of what I’ve come to think of as Contemporary Hipster Theater: quirky, self-referential, precariously straddling the chasm between the irony that is its natural inclination and the sincerity it senses it must risk, and deeply concerned with conveying some kind of legible, laudable response to the present political moment. Its would-be edginess is blunted by the fact that, in New York City in 2018, Collective Rage isn’t simply a play but a type of play. The middle of the theatrical road is now paved with the efforts of playwrights and institutions to perform their usefulness via their indignation, to draw a direct line between art and activism that would seem to render the art in question more powerful, more — red-flag word — “necessary,” but instead often does little more than shorten the work’s shelf life. How long will all of these anxious, aggrieved Age of Trump plays last? Ben Jonson’s satires were much more overtly topical than Shakespeare’s plays, but 400 years later the world doesn’t sustain a surfeit of Jonson Theaters.
Not to say that Shakespeare needs to be the standard any writer sets for herself, but since Collective Rage in fact gains its engine by riffing on that writer’s most famous comedy, it seems fair to dig the guy up again. Silverman’s characters are four women and one “gender-non-conforming, masculine-presenting, female-bodied individual [who’s] comfortable with female pronouns” — all named Betty and all, according to a note from the playwright, “in desperate pursuit of happiness, in face of an almost unbearable loneliness.” (A condition otherwise known as being a person.) Numbered 1 through 5, they are, respectively, two rich and uptight housewives (one polished and seething, the other repressed and unravelling); a “high-femme, super queer” Sephora clerk; a butch lesbian with a truck and a crush on the Sephora clerk; and a suave, fresh-out-of-rehab genderqueer Casanova, also with a truck, who just wants to “run [her] boxing gym. And eat pussy.”
The Betties might seem mismatched, but there’s nothing like theater for bringing together a gang of lonely misfits. Collective Rage takes off after Betty 3 (that’s Sephora clerk Betty, the excellent Ana Villafañe) sees a play and reports back to her childhood pal, Betty 4 (butch truck Betty, a likable Lea DeLaria), that somehow, her experience of swanky, uptown Shakespeare has inspired her to “quit Sephora and dedicate my life to The Thea-Tah.” Betty 4 is skeptical — and horrified at the idea of spending $89 on “anything that won’t go on my truck” — but Betty 3 has seen a new vision of herself: as director (“and also the writer and also the lead … And also I’ma do hair and make-up”) of her very own version of the play-within-a-play from “Summer’s Midnight Dream.” With all of Peter Quince’s administrative anxiety and all of Bottom’s braggadocio, Betty 3 assembles her own gang of rude mechanicals and throws herself into her new calling — preparing to play both her production’s doomed lovers, “Burmese and Frisbee … Pyramid and Thirsty? Penis and Thursday!”
At about this point in Collective Rage (which really isn’t all that rage-y), I noticed that my laughter kept getting caught in my throat. Okay, not at Penis and Thursday — that’s straight-up funny. But as Betty 3 grabbed the play’s steering wheel and pointed it down its nudge-y, wink-y, meta-theatrical path, I wondered why, here, ingredients that often delight me — Shakespeare references, theater-about-theater shenanigans — tended to taste strangely off. It wasn’t the performances: The show’s five actors are its saving grace, from the magnetic Chaunté Wayans as Betty 5, who’s all sly half-smiles and smooth masculine charisma, to the expertly comic Villafañe, to Dana Delany’s crisp Betty 1 — who just wants to beat something up, despite her Upper East Side veneer — to the marvelous Adina Verson, whose giggling, yearning Betty 2 single-handedly pulls the play’s tongue out of its cheek and gives it a real heart. Director Mike Donahue does confident, compassionate work with his ensemble — pushing the comedy but retaining the characters’ humanity — and he and his designers keep the show swift and clean in Dane Laffrey’s open set, a mostly empty space covered by a boxy ceiling grid. Out of the hidden heights of this floating light box plummet things like armchairs and phones when they’re needed, and on its flat front, projection designer Caite Hevner notifies us in large neon block letters of Silverman’s lengthy scene titles.
These titles, and indeed, the complete title of Silverman’s play, go some length to explaining those unmistakable, between-the-shoulder-blades tweaks of annoyance that Collective Rage kept giving me, despite the intrepid work of Donahue and the cast. The show’s full name, which is emblazoned across the front of the set when you enter the theater, is: Collective Rage: A Play in Five 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. And if that hasn’t got you sufficiently keyed in to the show’s tone, the play’s scenes feature similar inscriptions — like, “Bettys 1 and 5 Discuss Tits and Rage,” or “Bettys 3 and 4 Discover That Highbrow Things Are Just Things That Seem To Be About Other Things When They’re Actually About Pussy” (this is the scene about going to a Shakespeare play), or “All of The Bettys Have Their First Collective Experience of Rage, Also Known As Rehearsal.”
Silverman is so addicted to these arch flourishes that she’s constantly pulling us outside of her play. Collective Rage is full of low-hanging comedic fruit, from the constant pronunciation of “theater” as “Thea-Tah” and the Betties’ layperson conversation about it in a room full of savvy playgoers— “[It] sounds confusing”; “It was cultural … [It] was very famous, lots of people think it’s good…”; “Lots of people are stupid” — to Betty 3’s tendency to bark overlong Starbucks orders at the scurrying, eager-to-please Betty 2. (When was the last time the “extra-tall-skinny-caramel-Splenda-non-fat-organic-double-shot-latte” joke was funny?) It’s as if Silverman is affecting a kind of superiority over the thing she herself has made, a too-cool-for-school flipness that seems to say, “I mean, I know how silly this whole Thea-Tah thing is. I’m a little ashamed that I’m still doing it right now, with the world the way it is. But look how self-aware I am! That makes it better, right?”
As a contemporary playwright, she’s far from alone in this hip insecurity, a tone that’s become so prevalent that it’s frankly exhausting. It’s understandable, and it’s also wrong-headed. I don’t begrudge any artist working right now their frustration — or rage, anxiety, uncertainty, feelings of political inadequacy, what-have-you — but I do reject the notion that, to perform a progressive duty, art must somehow pull off the paradoxical contortion of trumpeting its importance while simultaneously apologizing for its existence. That’s the business plays like Collective Rage are engaged in: They signal to us with all kinds of positive optics that they’re doing good and useful work in the world, and yet they wink at us, too, whispering out of the sides of their mouths that they know how frivolous they are, but won’t we please all come along, anyway?
There’s something craven in this mixed messaging, something that undermines the earnestness of the play’s final moments. Verson — whose frightened Betty 2 has undergone an ecstatic process of awakening after encountering her vagina in a hand mirror — gets to go to some truly strange and released places during the show. She turns a scene in which she talks to her own hand as a squeaky-voiced puppet (and her only friend) into a high-strung, wacky delight, and she’s genuinely affecting as she strips down, emotionally and physically, to prepare for her role of the Lion in Betty 3’s play. Having blown through all of its irony, Collective Rage ends with sincerity, as Betty 2 takes to the stage alone in her underwear to sing a soft, tentative song about how the world is “strange and lonely … but it’s probably gonna be okay / but that’s unclear / but maybe not.” Verson’s weird, vulnerable, multifaceted performance is almost enough to bring the play back around — but not quite. Her epilogue feels like a nice but ultimately ineffectual dose of sweet after a lot of sour. Collective Rage might want to reveal its heart, but like many a hipster, it waits too late and, despite its sassy exterior, is a little too scared.
Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties is at MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through October 7.