by Charles Isherwood on July 14, 2008
The subject of Mr. Durang’s comedy, which opened Sunday night at the Laura Pels Theater in a new production directed by Walter Bobbie, is that American evergreen, the family hearth as a crucible of despair. Evidenced by the success of the latest major drama along these lines, Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County,” the durability of this theme never seems to wane. And while this uneven Roundabout Theater Company production succeeds better at milking the play’s broad laughs than acknowledging the rich seams of anguish that feed them, Mr. Durang’s trademark blend of zany humor and grotesquerie remains unsettlingly potent.
To concoct “Bette and Boo,” Mr. Durang cross-bred two effective genres, the memory play and the comedy sketch. In the original production at the Public Theater, Mr. Durang himself played Matt, the narrator trying to trace the roots of the family’s legacy of woe. Here portrayed by the boyish Charles Socarides, our tour guide to three generations of discord steps forward in the opening moments to remind us that “if one looks hard enough, one can usually see the order that lies beneath the surface.” And yet as the snapshots from domestic gatherings across several decades flicker by, it is the god of chaos that seems to rule in the comfy parlors of these friendly middle-class folk.
Bette (Kate Jennings Grant), the devout Roman Catholic who embarks on her marriage to the respectable Boo (Christopher Evan Welch) with a smile of satisfaction on her face, hopes above all else to have a sumptuous brood of children. But after the arrival of Matt, she endures a series of stillbirths.
Perhaps only the fearless Mr. Durang would have the nerve to present the deaths of babies as a running gag. As the extended family assembles to celebrate the hoped-for arrival of a new member, a doctor ambles casually on, plops a swaddled parcel on the ground and announces, “The baby’s dead,” as if noting that his watch has stopped. The dissonance between the ghastliness of the events being depicted and the continually chipper tone in which they are greeted by the characters is the play’s signature leitmotif, the chugging generator of its biggest laughs.
And yet as the panorama of cruelty and disappointment widens — Boo slides quickly into unregenerate alcoholism, Bette’s sister Emily (Heather Burns) has a breakdown, Bette keeps praying for a miracle and littering the stage with little corpses, and Matt withdraws into the comparatively sunnier world of the novels of Thomas Hardy — glimpses of the consuming darkness beneath the giddy joking are hard to ignore.
Mr. Durang keeps the comedy crackling along, culminating in the ludicrous marriage counseling session during which the presiding priest takes a break from delivering useless platitudes and unhelpful advice to impersonate a piece of bacon frying. (Terry Beaver is terrific as both the frying father and the baby-dropping doctor.) But as the tug of existential horror increases, the discordance between the play’s bleak philosophy and its bubbly surface threatens to still your smiles entirely. “I don’t think God punishes people for specific things,” Matt says at one point. “I think he punishes people in general, for no reason.” Has a bleaker punch line ever been written?
Mr. Bobbie’s production never quite finds a way to blend the two impulses smoothly, so that we can feel the truth of the characters’ pain while enjoying the release of laughter. Ms. Grant is at her best in a pitifully sad monologue in which Bette phones an old friend to conjure up a few happy memories, but finds herself cheerily recounting the miseries of her life. Her utter solitude tears at you. Elsewhere she jumps nimbly from sunny to shrewish, bravely smiling through another stillbirth one minute, screeching about Boo’s drinking the next. But the character’s humanity tends to get lost for long stretches; the performance lacks the kind of emotional through line it needs, although it cannot be easy to establish an inner core for a woman who keeps morphing into a cartoon.
The same is true for Boo. Mr. Welch is a fine comic actor, but Boo does not allow much scope for his skills in this regard. And Mr. Welch does not fully transmit the pathos of the distance between father and son.
The garish sideshows surrounding the central marriage contain some of the more bitingly funny material. John Glover is rightly appalling as Boo’s casually brutish father, Karl. Victoria Clark beams with ferocious maternal cluelessness as the mother of the bride and Bette’s two equally unsatisfied sisters. “There are many pleasant things in the world,” she says to one in a crisis. “Think of them.”
As Boo’s mother, Soot, the inimitable Julie Hagerty is piteous and hilarious as she greets Karl’s skin-flaying insults with embarrassed giggling: “Soot is the dumbest white woman alive” is a typical endearment. And yet the searchlights in her sad eyes speak more eloquently of the cost of that laughter than anything else in the production.
Mr. Socarides plays Mr. Durang’s alter ego, Matt, with a sense of quizzical sorrow that can be affecting, but he is not really a comedian. Some of the joke-riddled monologues (“Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman”) don’t pack the punch they probably could. But I don’t regret not having seen Mr. Durang in the role. There is so much acute pain howling through this semi-autobiographical play that it is hard to imagine laughing along as the author cracks jokes in front of you.
As it was, I found myself squirming in discomfort more often than I would have liked, not laughing but wincing and sensing a desperation in the play that the production keeps at bay, that perhaps Mr. Durang could not bring himself to confront.
THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO
By Christopher Durang; directed by Walter Bobbie; sets by David Korins; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Acme Sound Partners; production stage manager, Robyn Henry; production manager, Kai Brothers; general manager, Rebecca Habel; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director. At the Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (212) 719-1300. Through Sept. 7. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Terry Beaver (Father Donnally/Doctor), Heather Burns (Emily Brennan), Victoria Clark (Margaret Brennan), John Glover (Karl Hudlocke), Kate Jennings Grant (Bette Brennan), Julie Hagerty (Soot Hudlocke), Adam LeFevre (Paul Brennan), Zoe Lister-Jones (Joan Brennan), Charles Socarides (Matt) and Christopher Evan Welch (Boo Hudlocke).