July 15, 2008
NEW YORK: Abject misery has never been choreographed with such wit and pizazz as it is in the new production of Christopher Durang’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.”
This Roundabout Theatre Company revival, now on view at off-Broadway’s Laura Pels Theatre, is ebulliently directed by Tony Award-winner Walter Bobbie. The difficulties of their union, presented in 33 swift scenes over the course of 30 years, play like a candy-coated therapy session. As narrated by Bette and Boo’s son, Matt (a stand-in for playwright Durang) the plot dips and twirls from hilarity to horror in equal measure.
We are introduced to Bette and Boo and their families on their special day as the whole cast surrounds them and jarringly hums the “Wedding March.” Bette just wants to have many babies, but, as we later learn, this is not to be. They have Matt, nicknamed Skippy, but four consecutive tries after him all end in stillbirths. These deaths — announced in grotesque fashion as the doctor drops the baby on the ground with a thud — take their toll on Bette in particular as she ignores Matt to focus on why she can’t have more children.
Kate Jennings Grant, as Bette, moves from heartbreakingly sad to astonishingly silly with lightning speed and is most moving in a pitiful phone call with her grade-school friend, Bonnie. Christopher Evan Welch, as Boo, expertly plays a man losing himself over time without any comprehension of what is really happening around him.
Did I mention it was funny? Despite the incredibly dour actualities of real life, Durang’s often absurd dialogue is hilarious, as are the characters created by this masterful cast.
Victoria Clark, as Bette’s mother, Margaret, is especially skilled at eliciting laughs. Her blithely clueless delivery is spot-on, as in her advice to her despairing daughter Emily: “There are many pleasant things in the world, think of them.”
Heather Burns, as Emily, the religious zealot with incredibly low self-esteem, is also notable — her constant apologizing for imagined slights could easily be whiney. But in Burns’ hands, it’s part of a well-rounded and particularly sad girl.
Zoe Lister-Jones, as the sardonic sister Joan, also has great comic timing and all her biting lines land with pointed efficiency. Adam LeFevre handles the part of Bette’s unintelligible father Paul and later, Bette’s lawyer. LeFevre skillfully embodies Durang’s signature mixture of pathetic and humorous.
Julie Hagerty, playing Boo’s mother, Soot, (nobody can remember how she got that name) is the master of ditsy, but this dingbat has a strong undercurrent of resentment. The bitterness she feels is entirely justified: Her husband, Karl, treats her like the dirt her name implies. He uses such lines as, “Soot is the dumbest white woman alive,” as sweet nothings and is constantly calling her an idiot. And yet, as played by the wonderful John Glover, Karl is a fully fleshed-out character, too.
Midway through their marriage, Bette and Boo attend an incredibly useless marriage retreat given by Father Donnally, which gives Terry Beaver a chance to shine. He is sidesplittingly funny as he interrupts his sermon on marital values to impersonate a piece of bacon frying. Father Donnally wishes people would just consider a little bit more before they get married. Then, they wouldn’t come to him with annoying requests for comfort and advice. He laments: “Why does no one ever think? Why did God make people stupid?”
The pace of the play is frantic. The big cast rushes around from scene to scene always framed by the fast-sliding red panels of David Korins’ clever set. Susan Hilferty’s bright 1950s costumes, especially for the women, perfectly match the chipper tone that masks the script’s dark revelations of alcoholism, illness and neglect.
There’s much more going on behind the scenes in those seemingly perfect “Leave It to Beaver”-esque families, Durang is saying. This excellent cast gives painful and hysterical life to this buoyantly tragic production.