Seen Off Broadway:

BETTY Rules,

at Off Broadway’s Zipper Theatre, features the members of BETTY, the trio of punk-harmony singers and satirists—sisters Amy and Elizabeth Ziff, and the astoundingly tall and vivacious Alyson Palmer—as they relive their lives and hard times. Now in their 17th year of cult success, they’ve survived boneheaded record executives, womyn’s music festivals, hostile audiences, and their own internal conflicts. Indeed, they portray themselves as riotously feuding neurotics—at one point, the Ziff Sisters even compare themselves to Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson--and some of the show’s most hilarious scenes are set in "band therapy" sessions, with the girls gleefully trading savage home truths. At any rate, the combination of bitchy humor plus distinctive song stylings results in a fast and funny 90 minutes. Kevin Adams is both set and lighting designer, and he provides BETTY with a mini-extravaganza of deeply saturated colors, spinning dot patterns, popping strobes, and other effects. (With this show, plus his gigs with John Leguizamo and the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Adams is now the go-to guy for alternative--read: rock-influenced--theatre events.) David A. Arnold’s excellent sound design ensures that we hear every word of the group’s pointed lyrics. On the evidence of this show, it’s fair to say that not only does BETTY rule--BETTY rocks.

BETTY Rules photo: © Carol Rosegg

In My Old Lady, at the Promenade Theatre, Peter Friedman is a middle-aged loser who inherits a Paris apartment from his wealthy, neglectful father. Trouble is, the place comes with an elderly woman and her prickly daughter. (The plot hinges on a little-known piece of French legal custom, in which people sell their apartments at below cost, then retain the rights to their homes until death). For the first act, Israel Horovitz’s script is a weirdly gripping comic psychological thriller, as mother, daughter, and interloper warily circle each other, each looking for the upper hand. Why is the old lady so charming to her presumed enemy? Is her daughter really having an affair with a married man? Why has Friedman’s late father thrown these three together? Horovitz has a rather full trunk of family secrets to unpack, however, and the second act bogs down in revelations of adultery, alcoholism, suicide, and incest. There’s even a discussion of Nazi collaborators. It’s all too much—are we in Paris or Pine Valley?—and it ends in the most incredible happy ending of the last several years. All three leads, including Sian Phillips as a shockingly vital nonagenarian and Jan Maxwell as her tough-minded daughter—are superb, despite the script’s eroding credibility. John Lee Beatty’s creepy, disintegrating apartment setting is nothing less than a triumph—it’s all cracked walls, august moldings, and hidden depths. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting adds to the sense of rooms unseen, and suggests several times of day with ease. Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes and Angelina Avallone’s makeup convincingly transform Phillips and Maxwell into mother and daughter. The bluesy incidental music by Peter Golub is given a clear presentation by sound designers Jon Gottlieb and Matthew Burton. Everything in My Old Lady is first-class, except for that creaky script.

As the second play of the season about homosexuality in a traditionally straight environment (with lots of nude shower scenes), Burning Blue is at something of a disadvantage. Where Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out makes its points with irony and a cast of quirky characters, Burning Blue is an overheated, sometimes hysterical melodrama. DMW Greer’s script focuses on allegations of homosexual behavior that lead to a witch hunt among four Navy pilots. The first act is competently plotted, but the second act is increasingly shrill and unconvincing. The best scenes focus on the four pilots; Chad Lowe scores heavily as a flier whose big secret has nothing to do with sex and Bill Dawes is first-rate as another flyboy, who has a masterly technique when it comes to baiting investigators. Many other scenes are overwritten and overacted, however, and the female characters are poorly drawn. Greer gets so tangled up in his own plot he never finds time to explore either the government’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy or the romance at the play’s core. Beowulf Borritt’s setting, which resembles the inside of an aircraft carrier, is most appropriate, and his costumes—uniforms and leisure wear—are fine as well. Philip Widmer’s lighting is OK. Interestingly, director John Hickok is his own sound designer and he does an excellent job, providing a longish prologue dialogue scene, in-flight sounds, and several musical interludes. I think the current policy towards gays in the military is insane, yet I was less than gripped by Burning Blue; this is not a good sign.