Dead babies is not usually a subject of hilarious comedy, but somehow Christopher Durang makes it work in this revival of his 1985 play, "The Marriage of Bette and Boo."
Add alcoholism, cancer, aphasia, nervous breakdowns, verbal abuse, and death, heartbreaking blows too many of us have gone through in the course of our lives, and still it's funny.
These awful crises are the central themes in this side-splitting comic tragedy, or tragic comedy, and even though you're laughing, you'll still be searching for a tissue. First produced Joe Papp's Public Theater, and not seen on a New York professional stage since, director Walter Bobbie decided it was time to bring this "most autobiographical" of Durang's plays back to life.
Narrated by young Skippy (originally played by Durang), the only living offspring of the crazed eponymous couple, each of the play's 33 quick scenes represent chapters in the lives of his parents, beginning with their union into holy matrimony. Using flashbacks and chronological sequencing, Skippy takes us through the emotional turmoil that defined his parents' marriage, including his extended family's neuroses and grandparents' inabilities to help themselves, much less their own children.
Bette's father Paul is portrayed as a simpleton incapable of intelligible speech, a wonderful metaphor for the other characters who speak but can't communicate. One might even conjecture that maybe Betteï¿½s parents have the best marriage of all, given that they can't possibly argue. But Bette and Boo argue non-stop.
This is where the dead babies come in. Bette's first child survives, but subsequent attempts to have more children, knowing they are unlikely to survive, is handled in over-the-top satire. At first we laugh heartily, but her many stillborn infants ultimately purge us of that reaction. Finding no answer from friends or her priest, Bette becomes increasingly childlike, skipping and jumping, explaining how she wants tons of children, all to be named for A. A. Milne characters.
Then she does a 180 and the same darling, innocent Bette is transformed into a demonic nag, especially when Boo (no one knows his real name, including his parents) takes drink after drink, pledging to stop -- and doesn't.
Religion becomes Betteï¿½s drug of choice, represented by a foolish Father Donnally, an exasperated priest who has no answers for this totally dysfunctional band of misfits. Anyone who knows the playwright's works knows this lapsed Catholic has little love for the church, and he reviles religion here as he does in his earlier play, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You."
Durang's undeniable talent as a playwright -- developed at Yale's School of Drama -- is revealed in the complex structure of "Bette and Boo" which encourages us to laugh out loud at the jaw-dropping hilarity of the characters' absurd reactions to each crisis while we simultaneously experience the pain of their reality.
Skippy, who sets up all of these vignettes to illustrate his points, is played by Charles Socarides, a young actor who impressed off-Broadway audiences last year in A. R. Gurney's "Indian Blood." His narrations are sprinkled with literary allusions, essays in progress, and introspection as he tries to explain his inexplicable family.
Kate Jennings Grant gives a remarkable performance as Bette, and is well-matched with Christopher Evan Welch as Boo. Adam Lefevre is hilarious as the tongue-tied Paul, a perfect foil for John Glover's bullying, boozing Karl, patriarch of ill manners.
"Till death do us part," takes on new meaning in the absurdist world of Durang. Although your sides may hurt from laughing, your breath will catch at the nakedness of the emotions running rampant in this play. We could simply reject these characters as insipid and silly, but instead, we embrace them as mirrors into our own souls. Comedy is meant to hold up that glass so we can see how to improve ourselves. However, Durang cannot improve upon "The Marriage of Bette and Boo."
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus