Fringe Festival play ‘Bethesda’ gleans dark humor from a father’s extramarital affair


Promotional art for the Capital Fringe Festival production “Bethesda.” (Courtesy of Jennie Berman Eng)

From the suburbs of Bethesda comes a black comedy about a family encountering the town’s literal Aramaic meaning, “House of Mercy.” American diplomat Barry (James Whalen) and his family return stateside after a scandal in Bolivia rocks their family dynamics. Barry’s affair with the family’s housemaid (Ariana Almajan) causes his wife, Joy (played by the engaging Adrienne Nelson), to make him concoct a fabricated tale of drug and prostitution use to tell in public. Their terse bickering never amounts to a productive, outright confession.

The couple’s kids, Kevin (Noah Chiet) and Hildy (Georgia Mae Lively), are confused by their parents’ half-truths. Each seeks to uncover the full intricacies of their father’s ordeal on their own. Barry’s offenses are slowly revealed in fragmented flashbacks and sobering real-time conversations through the story’s unhurried pacing.

Despairing in his current status as the “acid wash jeans of Washington,” Barry sits with an afternoon beer at the kitchen table and later offers his underage daughter a sip. Meanwhile, wife Joy paces restlessly around the house calling one acquaintance after another to help reinstate Barry at his job and get the kids into the exclusive Sidwell Friends School. As she strains to patch their family’s reputation, Joy observes: “People always find out, unless you create a distraction.”

Playwright Jennie Berman Eng artfully captures the disappointment and teenage angst of kids who grow up too fast. She writes in reflective observations and sharp criticisms about relationships through the eyes of young Kevin and Hildy. In one poignant scene, Kevin reads aloud a furious, soul-searing speech written on behalf of his father. He wades through conflicting feelings of astonishment, frustration and hesitant affection for parents who fail him time and again. Lively plays a monotone-voiced Hildy, who lobs quiet zingers in an attempt to survive the family’s dysfunction. Hildy comes with her own romantic troubles mirroring her father’s. But even with her seemingly lackadaisical values, she’s presented as one of the wiser characters. Hildy shrewdly advises her father to come clean to the family and then nudges her mother to make a life-altering decision.

The play could use the help of a stronger audio component. The venue’s spotty sound system blotted out some of the actors’ inflections and subtle turns of phrase. Despite that, Eng’s biting script receives breathtaking verve from a family enduring their father’s sins. Beyond satirizing suburban malaise, “Bethesda” finds humor in what a family must do to survive in this town.

Bethesda

At 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.capitalfringe.org. $17 plus the one-time purchase of a $7 button. About 85 minutes.

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