NORTHBRIDGE – George Gershwin’s hushed romantic ballad “Someone to Watch Over Me” has never been used more incongruously than it is in Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy,” a sharply amusing fusillade aimed squarely at the inefficacy of therapy and the perils of searching for the for the ideal relationship by means of a personal ad.

Since “Beyond Therapy” is set in 1982 Manhattan, match.com is nowhere in sight, but people could just as easily invent themselves in the newspaper then as they do on the internet now. However dated “Beyond Therapy” may seem in the context of the instant-gratification, social networking world we presently live in, director Matthew J. Carr and his acutely attuned cast have crafted a scintillating, subtly scathing, and often appallingly funny production. Pilgrim Soul Productions is assuredly concluding its season on a typically high note, one that prompted a packed audience to deliver a well-deserved standing ovation at Friday evening’s curtain call.

If one can call “Beyond Therapy,” among other things, a “romantic comedy,” it’s one taking place in an alternate universe, where the first thing Bruce (Bernard Galvin) says to his date, Prudence (Elisabeth Gondek), is “You have lovely breasts.” Soon after, he’s telling her that he has a male lover. Under normal circumstances, you’d think Prudence would run out of the restaurant and cut her losses, but no, she sticks around, weirdly fascinated by a man who cries his out at the drop of a hat. Galvin and Gondek immediately establish a marvelously paced comic atonality and amusing tension, as Bruce and Prudence’s unsettling first date ands in a fight, with the two tossing water into each other’s faces.

That happens frequently in ”Beyond Therapy,” with several of its loony characters, none nuttier than the two dubious therapists who are wasting Bruce and Prudence’s time and money. Prudence’s therapist, Stuart Framingham (Christopher O’Conner), is an egocentric, libidinous aggressor with whom Prudence had an affair after her second session. When she tells him about her disastrous date, he comes on to her again, climbing on top of her on the patient’s couch, stroking her legs and saying that he can “light her fire” anytime she wants him to. It’s a scene played with slapstick hilarity by O’Conner and Gondek, but while one may laugh here, the vicious expletive that the jealous and immature Stuart spits at Prudence during a subsequent therapy session makes it abundantly clear that Durang’s greatest target in “Beyond Therapy” isn’t the patient but the therapist.

Bruce’s therapist, Charlotte (Lida McGirr), has a stuffed Snoopy that she uses to “break through” with her patients, and barks triumphantly whenever she feels she has. Charlotte is the play’s most outrageous comic creation, and McGirr takes hold of the role, like Snoopy with a dog bone, and never lets go. She’s sensationally over-the-top, no more than when she has a mental epiphany with Bruce’s gay boyfriend Bob (Adam P. Fleming), and shrieks, over and over, what she thinks is a gay man’s preferred sexual act.

Charlotte, who can’t remember what she’s trying to say from one moment to the next, has no business being a therapist any more than Stuart does, but at least she’s insanely endearing, as well as just plain insane. As daft as she is, she’s a New Age guru who dispenses some pretty good advice to the romantic malcontents stupidly expecting perfection in an imperfect world. Durang’s humor may be odd and condescending, but there’s an underlying sentiment of hope in “Beyond Therapy,” an olive branch that he extends to even Stuart.

Carr is an actor’s director, who has a knack for drawing out exactly what he wants from his cast. McGirr may steal every scene she’s in, but Gondek does a wonderful job of illuminating Prudence’s contradictory emotions. She never seems very sure of what she wants and randomly goes with the flow.

Galvin deftly interprets Bruce as the self-defined “partial crackpot” that he is. Together they are truly an odd couple.

O’Connor manages to show the vulnerability hidden underneath Stuart’s macho sexual bluster. Fleming invests the semi-cuckolded Bob with Terrifically caustic wit and disdain, insisting that Prudence is really a lesbian. Peter Arsenault is amusingly nonchalant as Andrew, a waiter who figures prominently in closing moments.

Alan Strandwicz’s set design includes a panoramic mural of familiar Manhattan skyscrapers. It’s a visual motif beyond extraordinary, in a production you’re heartily encouraged to check out.

Worcester Telegram & Gazette
Paul Kolas