Hip Shot: Bethesda

BethesdaGallery – Goethe Institut

Remaining Performances:

Tuesday, July 22 at 8:00 p.m.

Wednesday, July 23 at 6:00 p.m.

Saturday, July 26 at 2:30 p.m.

They say: Disgraced American diplomat Barry returns to DC, but soon discovers his past haunts his wife and kids. When his son runs away and his daughter is caught cheating, wife Joy changes the course of the family forever.

Greg’s Take: For whatever reason I’ve always had a soft spot for plays where affluent people stay at home and yell at each other for several hours. There’s a special type of voyeuristic glee that comes from taking a wall out of someone’s dining room and watching them tear each other to bits that’s just hard to find anywhere else. The root cause of this fascination is unclear, but I’m pretty sure that living in Arlington until I was eighteen played a large part. Hence my delight when I thumbed through the Fringe catalog earlier this month and found Bethesda, a beltway drama centered on a sublimely miserable family of four, in which the title city gamely plays the role of suburban purgatory.

Bethesda is a member of that increasingly rare species at Fringe: a straightforward drama with no movement pieces or multi-media intrusions or odd surrealist elements where one of the characters turns out to be a puppet or an alien or something by the end. It’s a good thing then, without any of those bells and whistles to prop it up, that the writing and the acting are very, very good. The blurb will tell you that Bethesda is about a disgraced diplomat who tries, with varying degrees of effort, to get his life back together. It isn’t wrong, but the dour dramatic wording of the promo material doesn’t do  justice to the cast or to director and playwright Jennie Berman Eng, who manages to squeeze humor, poignancy and tenderness out of the horrible circumstances she's ginned up for her characters.

James Whalen plays Barry, the diplomat in question, with a sort of existentialist charm. He’s a Gregor Samsa for modern-day Washington, where instead of turning into a giant bug he always seems a little surprised to have transformed overnight into an underachieving slob who drinks beer in his underwear at 10 a.m. Opposite him is Adrienne Nelson as Joy, a steely matriarch and helicopter parent of the first degree. Simmering between them is something that remains unsaid not so much for the sake of a big “Ta-Da!” moment at the end, but because the two of them seem far less capable of speaking its name than they are of sniping each other over it. Noah Chiet and Georgia Mae Lively round out the family of four as Kevin and Hildy, who are both superb in roles that very easily could have simply become pawns in their parents’ power struggle.

This doomed quartet lithely navigates the demands of Eng’s script, which crackles with barely contained animosity. The turns of phrase are crisp and the jokes have all the right amount of teeth, but what Eng’s words do best is expose domestic unhappiness for what it really is – not a major showdown but an unwinnable series of trivial skirmishes. Public vs. private school. Suits vs. sweat pants. Ramen vs. MSG. Eng’s characters are all fighting a war of attrition, played out in the larders and the driveways and the soccer fields of the greater DC metro area.

It is a little bit disappointing to watch the script lose its mojo toward the end. It concludes a couple more times than it needs to, but the major endgame let-down is the fact that a major breaking point happens to one family member off-stage. The build-up and the fallout are amazing, which made not being around to watch it happen all the more frustrating. <i>Bethesda’s</i> final minutes also suffer from a pretty sparse allotment of resolution. This being a realist drama it didn’t need a heaping helping of closure in order to feel satisfying, but the last few scenes were so devoid of catharsis as to leave me wondering if maybe I’d been rooting for the wrong person the whole time.

But Bethesda's ambiguity is invigorating, too. One of the best things about it is that it doesn’t end happily or unhappily; in fact, it only feels finished  because the lights go up and all the actors go home. Eng and her cast do a very good job in their last moments of creating a real sense that these people are only a little bit healed, only a little bit better than they were when we first saw them. They haven’t gotten where they’re going so they have no choice but to carry on after the curtain goes down, forging ahead sans audience to live and fight another day.

See it if: You love yourself some good old fashioned upper-middle-class nastiness.

Skip it if: You prefer puppets and aliens.