THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO
at Center Theater
During the intermission of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, by Christopher Durang, I kept hearing people talk about the adorable and darling characters in this Eternity's Well production. They were right. The characters were adorable. The problem is that Durang didn't write adorable characters into the play, about a young man trying to come to terms with his dysfunctional family. In his inimitably demented style, Durang wrote annoying characters, boorish characters, anguished characters, frustrating characters--but no adorable characters. By turning these people into lovable buffoons, Eternity's Well takes the bite out of Durang and undercuts the desperate self-searching that defines The Marriage of Bette and Boo.
The play focuses on the causes and ramifications of a failed marriage. It is narrated by the one child of that marriage (later children were stillborn), Matt--or Skippy, as everyone calls him. Between scenes he attempts an intellectual analysis of the events onstage. But gradually he's drawn into the scenes himself, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and his analyses become more emotional. Ultimately, re-creating the events of his life and his parents' lives acts as therapy for him, and in a true psychological breakthrough he can finally let go of some of his anger and genuinely mourn for his family.
All this sounds like pretty serious stuff--like The Glass Menagerie, in fact, or O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, or any number of other plays about dysfunctional families. Durang follows the lead of artists like Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin, however, who turn their characters' tragedy and angst into humor. But Durang's humor is more brutal and absurd than theirs--many of his laughs come from their shock value. Some of the funnier moments in the first act of The Marriage of Bette and Boo are the stillborn births. These scenes are written in the style of the infamous dead-baby jokes, each with its own blackly humorous punch line.
All the characters except Matt are drawn in crass, broad, almost cartoonish strokes. Bette's father, for instance, isn't just a mumbler but literally incomprehensible, speaking nonsensical syllables in guttural, nasal tones. Bette herself is disturbingly optimistic, a vapid woman-child who reads Winnie-the-Pooh and wants to name her children after the characters. Bette is so steeped in 1950s ideals she'd make Sandra Dee puke. But as the play progresses and Matt begins to understand his family, the characters take on more depth. Though they never reach Matt's level of realism (and even he is decidedly and delightfully odd), their failures as people become comprehensible and therefore sympathetic--they're victims of their own humanity.
This Eternity's Well production, directed by Jeremy M. Wechsler, captures neither the ruthless dementia of Matt's early story telling nor the stories' underlying tenderness later as Matt's comprehension of his relatives grows. Instead, Eternity's Well walks a tightrope between the two for the entire show, so there's no development, no shift in perspective. The company does occasionally push reality over the edge, but just enough to get the point across, never beyond the limits of decency--which is where Durang's play lives. As a result, The Marriage of Bette and Boo loses its structure and poignancy. It becomes simply entertainment.
As simple entertainment, however, this production holds up quite well, mainly because the cast is extremely talented. All of them are so committed to the work that they do manage to create charming and eccentric characters. While their likability muddies the play's meaning, it makes the production enjoyable to watch.
Particularly good are Denise Randol as Boo's mother, Soot, and Janet Van Wess as the sourpuss Joan, one of Bette's sisters. Randol has developed a wonderfully annoying dopey laugh for whenever Soot is uncomfortable. She also delves a little deeper than most of the cast into her character, communicating the frustration of a woman who's used her "dumb blond" persona to hide what's going on inside. Van Wess as Joan delivers her short, snide one-liners with a perfect deadpan. And though her character doesn't call for the same revelatory intricacies as Randol's, Van Wess is the picture of a desperately unhappy woman who refuses to hide her unhappiness in a family that insists she must.
Only Linda Jones, as Bette's hypersensitive sister Emily, clearly Matt's favorite, provides the degree of character development the play demands. She begins as a preposterous figure, a girl who doesn't think she can do anything right, who goes into hysterical fits blaming herself for every unhappiness the family faces. Slowly Jones allows us to see the root of Emily's troubles in this disastrously troubled family. Because she makes this crucial character increasingly real, Emily's final benediction does provide the family with its first genuine sense of peace.