Monday, July 14, 2008

Absurd Comedy

The Marriage of Bette and Boo
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Starring Terry Beaver, Heather Burns, Victoria Clark, John Glover, Julie Hagerty, Kate Jennings Grant, Zoe Lister Jones, Adam Lefevre, Charles Socarides, Christopher Evan Welch

Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
Performances June 12–September 7, 2008

Grant and Welch in The Marriage of Bette and Boo (photo: Joan Marcus)
Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo concerns itself with broken relationships, alcoholism, cancer, stillbirth, and the Catholic Church. Naturally, it’s a comedy.

Originally produced at the Public Theater in 1985, the play is a prime specimen of Durang’s brand of absurdism. As the most autobiographical of his works, it must have had a shocking resonance at its premiere since the playwright himself played a veiled version of himself as Matt, Bette and Boo’s only surviving son, our narrator and guide to the proceedings.

Nearly a quarter-century later, The Marriage of Bette and Boo is receiving its first New York revival under the steady comic hand of director Walter Bobbie, with a cast that's certainly capable of ratcheting up Durang’s dark-humored harangues. What’s missing is any sense of urgency, any real sense that this play -- with its biting if unoriginal criticisms of everything from the Church to marriage to institutions of higher learning -- was worth bringing back at this time.

Basing the play on his own parents’ choppy 15 years together, Durang introduces Bette and Boo as a frivolously happy young couple. Their wedding and eventual breakup bookend a series of 33 short, frantic scenes showing their rapidly disintegrating relationship and the equally fraudulent marriages of both sets of parents. In this context, the local priest, Father Donnelly, seems the voice of reason -- even though the thought of an elderly, celibate priest giving marital advice to a young couple is the ultimate absurdity.

The scenes are often played out of chronology. They shoot by in a blur as Durang often contents himself with lazy jokes and insults, many of which are repeated to lesser effect as the play continues. The supposedly daring nature of the comedy is probably the most dated aspect of the piece, although I doubt that even in 1985 such onstage doings were all that shocking to New York audiences plagued by the specter of AIDS and the rise of the Religious Right.

With help from set designer David Korins’ smoothly sliding panels and Donald Holder’s snappy lighting, director Bobbie keeps Bette and Boo going at a brisk pace, never allowing the action to slacken even if the comedy often does. With two exceptions, the cast is perfection. Would that Charles Socarides weren’t so doggedly earnest as the grown-up Matt, even if this was Durang’s intention; the actor’s seriousness juxtaposed with such tragic absurdity never jells. And as Bette’s cranky, jaded sister Joan, Zoe Lister Jones never finds the one correct note on which to base her performance.

Happily, the rest are up to snuff. Adam Lefevre and Victoria Clark (as Bette’s parents) and John Glover and Julie Hagerty (as Boo’s parents) somehow ground their crazy caricatures in some sort of reality. Heather Burns does far more with the role of Bette’s other sister, the pathetic Emily, than this cello-playing loser probably deserves, and Terry Beaver plays two roles -- Father Donnelly and a doctor -- with equally hilarious results. He turns the priest’s long sermon on marriage into the play’s comic highlight, and he even throws Bette’s four stillborn babies to the ground with variety.

As Bette and Boo, Kate Jennings Grant and Christopher Evan Welch are excellent. Grant manages to make the chirpy goose Bette sympathetic, while Welch is a master of the slow burn, the double take, and the zinging one-liner, all of which comes in handy here. That these two actors can make us care about the fate of this couple in such an over-the-top setting is not to be taken lightly; Grant and Welch are even able to precisely capture the tragic undertones of this messy play’s final scenes far more persuasively than the playwright himself.

No comments: