Christopher Durang is still our there dancing the varsity drag in "Beyond Therapy," a slightly altered version of his 1981 comedy that came to the Atkinson last evening. When the Phoenix Theater presented it Off Off Broadway early last year, it seemed crammed with college humor, funny but shapeless. That still holds.
A farce ostensibly concerned with the rickety romance between a jittery bisexual male and a perplexed female, both under therapy, it is practically yanked form under their splayed feet by their nitnutty analysts.
Charlotte (Kate McGregor-Stewart), who tends to Bruce (John Lithgow), is an almost totally distracted practitioner who fondles a Snoopy doll and has enormous difficulty finding the proper word (it takes her a long chain of associations to get from "dirigible" to "secretary" in summoning her receptionist in the next room). And Dr. Framingham (Peter Michael Goetz), who not only hears out Prudence (Dianne Wiest) but has seduced her, is vain and short-tempered as well as lecherous. Baiting shrinks is very old hat, of course, but these two provide the play with its funniest moments.
Bruce, who would like a wife and children to kind of round out his life, which already includes his male lover Bob (Jack Gilpin), has placed an ad for a woman, and Prudence turns up in a restaurant whose service is not merely poor but absent, since no waiter can be found. The two get off on the wrong feet, those awkward ones, but after a series of scenes switching back and forth between the therapists' offices and the restaurant, and one in Bruce's (and Bob's) apartment, they reach a sort of rapprochement to the strains of "Someone to Watch Over Me."
But the sentiment is to be found only in the music, for we neither believe in nor care a jot for the pair. Durang's insolence, particularly as expressed by the therapists, is a strong point, and there are many outrageously amusing lines, along with some titillating nonsequiturs.
In an earlier day, Durang might have written profitably for the Marx Brothers, who would then have tried out his stuff in front of live audiences before chopping it up and committing it to film. But on his own, so to speak, and I'm not discounting the help he's gotten from his cast and director, he is unable to make it all hang together. He's lopped off the final scene, bringing the play to a close much as before, but in the restaurant after the free-for-all, the latter never achieving the sought-after heights of hilarity.
I intend no disservice to the excellent Dianne Wiest, who makes an appealing Prudence, by saying that I missed the tall and gorgeous comedienne Sigourney Weaver, who created the part and whose mere presence on stage made the Phoenix production worth catching. John Lithgow, who towers over Wiest, is an engagingly bumbling Bruce, and Jack Gilpin, who also created his role, is modestly entertaining as Bruce's crushed and eventually bitchy lover Bob, who dates the waiter (David Pierce) when gunshots finally produce him.
But it is McGregor-Stewart and Goetz who bring the most enjoyment. John Madden has directed this slipshod piece with considerable flair, and Andrew Jackness has contributed some nicely dressed and smoothly sliding sets. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes and Paul Gallo's lighting are also slickly professional. It's only the play that's lacking.
Christopher Durang's play Beyond Therapy is not beyond redemption and probably not beyond help. However, on its Broadway debut at the Brooks Atkinson Theater yesterday, I was surprised to see how little theraputic assistance Durang had given it since its premiere at the Phoenix more than a year ago.
Then it was a series of often incandescently merry set-pieces that - while amusing in passing - having passed, never added up to a play. It was more a verbal firework display illuminating contemporary jokes about psychiatrists and sexual identity, rather than a full-fledged comedy.
Disconcertingly, it still is. Nothing seems changed, except most of the cast. Bruce is an aging, preppy, bisexual lawyer who wants to make a commitment to a woman, while hopefully maintaining his present boyfriend in a room over a two-car Connecticut garage. To further this ambition he places an advertisement in an agony column, and thereby meets, in a seemingly waiterless restaurant, a beady-eyed, bird-like woman who writes for People magazine.
The situation is more bizarre-peculiar than bizarre-funny. The humor never has an underpinning of truth to it. It glances off contemporary mores with its ricochetting barbs glittering from perceptions of contemporary jokes rather than contemporary life. In short, it is a phony, but a quite cute and in its oxymoronic way a quite genuine phony.
Bruce and Prudence (the lady from People) have psychiatrists like other less privileged people have beriberi. And the two psychiatrists - hers ia a blustering sexually insecure idiot, his is a crazy woman who carries a Snoopy doll and suffers with her memory - are superbly nuts. These grotesques, representing every doubt you ever had about the world's most dubious profession, while uncoupling the play with their dynamite shticks of comedy, are gorgeous creations.
Unfortunately, the wooing of Bruce and Prudence - with Bruce's boyfriend and the boyfriend's unseen mother intervening - is less than fascinating; and at the end, when time comes to pull the curtain on their tepid romance, it is hard to muster up any interest in the outcome.
Durang can write so well that you wonder why, at times, he writes so badly.
Here is Durang the Good. Prudence tells Bruce: "I don't think men should cry unless something falls on them." The remark is bright, unexpected, and rooted in character and situation.
Now sample Durang the Bad. Bruce is defending his homosexuality to Prudence. She points out: "Do I want children saying: 'I saw Daddy kissing the gas-man.'?" Bruce counters with: "We could get electric heat." Not funny, but more importantly, it adds nothing to the play's texture or our understanding of it. Even farce must have a sounding-board for its own noisy racket.
This is echo-less, shadowless stuff. Yet handsomely dished out, not only by the extravagantly inventive Durang, but also in the present agreeably glossy production. John Madden has directed its manic conceits with a quick wit and light hand, and Andrew Jackness's sliding settings convey just the right shriek of chic.
And then there is the smoothly riotous acting. John Lithgow is lovably befuddled as Bruce, Dianne Wiest cleverly befuddled as Prudence, two comic souls lost in New York's inferno without a guidebook, let alone a guide.
In the grandiosly showy roles of the psychiatrists, Peter Michael Goetz and Kate McGregor-Stewart are monumentally absurd. Nice work is also provided by Jack Gilpin as the injured boyfriend and David Pierce as a laggard waiter.
But when all is said and played, Durang should consider reversing Gertrude's precept to Polonius and give us "more art and less matter."
Some day, I swear, the explosive comic brilliance of Christopher Durang will erupt on Broadway. The only question is when. It didn't happen in 1978, when this playwright's ''A History of the American Film'' capsized in a spectacularly ill-conceived production. And it didn't happen last night, when Mr. Durang's latest play, ''Beyond Therapy,'' pretty much wilted of its own volition at the Brooks Atkinson. But we must be patient with this gifted fellow - he'll get there yet. In the meantime, we can make the wait pass faster by revisiting ''Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,'' the Durang chef d'oeuvre now safely ensconced Off Broadway.
''Beyond Therapy'' was first produced Off Broadway at the Phoenix Theater two seasons ago. It contained some hilarious jokes, uneasily tied to a bland, dramatically amorphous romance involving two 30-ish singles who meet through a personals ad. For Broadway, the play has been tightened and revised: It has two new leads, a new director and a totally reversed ending. Yet, for all the hard work, the final result is unchanged. We still don't care whether Bruce (John Lithgow), a bisexual lawyer, and Prudence (Dianne Wiest), a writer for People magazine, ever get married or not. We still laugh at the stronger jokes - although they sound somewhat tinnier in a Broadway house.
The funniest riffs belong to the hero and heroine's respective therapists -perhaps the most outrageous quacks to be seen since W.C. Fields practiced dentistry. Prudence's doctor (Peter Michael Goetz) likes to seduce his female patients and then gets hostile when the women complain about his lack of carnal expertise. Bruce's shrink (Kate McGregor-Stewart) has an obsessive identification with Dr. Dysart of ''Equus,'' tends to confuse words (''thermidor'' for ''therapy'') and carries a Snoopy doll with her at all times.
Mr. Durang's savage view of psychiatry runs so deep that it's no wonder that the doctors, and the actors who play them, run away with the evening. Mr. Goetz, last seen as John Barrymore in ''Ned and Jack,'' is uproariously sinister: He smokes a pipe and cigarette simultaneously and literally dances for joy when handed an opportunity to humiliate a patient. Miss McGregor-Stewart, who was Bob Dishy's sister in ''Grown Ups,'' is a riot of loud clothing, deranged grins and cackling, Equus-like laughing jags.
At the same time, however, the therapy gags are defeating: like too many jokes in this play, they compromise the credibility of the figures at center stage. Would Bruce, who has a live-in male lover (the delightfully tremulous Jack Gilpin), really go to a therapist who is openly disgusted by homosexuality and who often doesn't remember his name? Would Prudence, a sensitive, decent sort, continue to see a doctor who first seduces her and then threatens her with electroshock treatments?
Perhaps we should take the playwright's exaggeration in good fun - as merciless satire, as stylization. But even if we buy Bruce and Prudence's weakness for sleazy therapists, this putative couple still doesn't add up. Why would Prudence, who also ''hates'' homosexuals, tolerate the bisexual Bruce, and why would he keep chasing her? Mr. Durang's jokey, throw-away rationalizations for this odd courtship provide no enlightenment.
Nor do the other lines fill in the blanks in these people; the playwright never summons up the passion for his leads that he does for their doctors. We're repeatedly told that Bruce must learn to take emotional risks, that Prudence must learn to accept people's imperfections. Both characters are apparently lonely and want children. And that's it. Otherwise, this is a colorless, if whiny, pair who keep coming together and splitting apart as aimlessly as billiard balls.
Mr. Lithgow and Miss Wiest, like Stephen Collins and Sigourney Weaver in the previous production, work hard and often charmingly, but there can be no sparks. They remain empty, anonymous vessels for arbitrary one-liners. Some of the jokes are priceless sallies about show business (from ''Pacific Overtures'' to ''Auntie Mame''); others (notably those invoking Gary Gilmore and David Berkowitz) are irrelevant and forced. Nor is there a well-conceived farcical plot to connect the sketchlike scenes; it's not until the last of Act I's six scenes that more than two characters appear on stage at once.
John Madden, who directed ''Grown Ups'' so incisively, has little choice but to match the archness of the writing here, and the rat-a-tat Broadway rhythm of the punch lines sounds desperate after a while. The stylized pacing is slowed by Andrew Jackness's sets, which perfectly capture the soft colors and hard angles of contemporary Manhattan but move all too cumbersomely - to the wrong-note accompaniment of trashy, piped-in music.
Yet the real disappointment in ''Beyond Therapy'' is the script, and nowhere is this better crystallized than when Mr. Durang brings on a favorite prop - a gun that is pulled by an angry character. There's a gun in ''Sister Mary,'' too, and when it shoots, it kills - a conceit that seems entirely right in the context of that play's fierce emotions about human suffering and religion. By contrast, the barking pistol in ''Beyond Therapy'' proves a toy - as if to confirm that nothing in this play is for keeps, that no feelings are strongly held.
This isn't to say that ''Beyond Therapy'' needs a few murders; what it needs are jokes rooted in real people who arouse either the author's compassion or anger. That's what Mr. Durang gave us so powerfully in ''Sister Mary,'' and that's why he shouldn't settle now for firing comic blanks idly into the air.