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The Marriage of Bette and Boo

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christopher Evan Welch and Kate Jennings Grant.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Dysfunction, like so much else in life, is relative. Take Christopher Durang's piercing comic tearjerker, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which Roundabout is now presenting in its Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. When the play premiered 23 years ago, its torrential centerpieces of divorce, alcoholism, and stillbirths (four in all) were ideal for vivisection by jokes that made relieving light of things that at first seemed impossibly dark. How better to survive the depths of emotional degradation than by facing them on their own surreal terms?

Alas, the intervening two and a half decades have not been kind. With the television airwaves flooded with reality TV shows, in which confessions about once-taboo topics are commonplace, there aren't many boundaries left to breach, and most of the blindly followed traditions Durang assails have since been viciously parodied by far more serious sources. What remains of Bette and Boo is an amplified version of what has always existed: a messy, entropy-prone chronicle of a young man's upbringing so buoyant and funny that you hardly notice how heartbreaking it is.

It's understandable, then, that the play's tragic aspects are more persuasive and percussive today than once they were. And this revival's director, Walter Bobbie, and his mostly appealing cast are very willing and almost always able to work within this difficult new context. Though they can't resurrect all of the original bite, they do construct a sturdy, attractive vision of a past we can't help but wish we had somehow been able to take part in, even if we're also glad we didn't.

The same, of course, isn't true of Matt (Charles Socarides), that young man who's narrating the life of his mother Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) and father Boo (Christopher Evan Welch), with the lithe, backhanded zing that identifies him as Durang by another name. (And, indeed, he played the role in the original production.) This student of Thomas Hardy is also an unflinching observer of the unwinding world around him, and it's his plan to bring order to the increasingly chaotic pieces of his life by turning back the clock to see not where his family went wrong, but whether it was ever right.

Bette was raised, by a domineering mother and an aphasic father (Victoria Clark and Adam Lefevre) to believe that happiness resides in the children, religion, and auspices of home. Boo was the product of a misogynistic bigot of a father and a dirtily dotty mother (John Glover and Julie Hagerty) who've taught him that most of life's challenges can be overcome by taking charge of women and drinking when things don't go well. It doesn't take Matt, or us, long to see that this particular road to hell was paved with the shiniest of misunderstood intentions.

As the years (and Bette's dead babies) go flying, the families' competing visions of connubial contentment corrode in the acidic reality that life can't be planned any more than it can be understood. Everyone is a victim of time, poor choices, or both. Not a single marriage looks to have been a good idea. Even appointed caretakers of the status quo, represented by a doctor and a priest (portrayed to full, demented drollness by Terry Beaver), are helpless and hopeless, doomed to repeat the platitudes that are the only tools they have for dealing with life's most insoluble problems.

While long-familiar Durang territory, it's sharply enough conceived and executed that it's never hard to laugh at. But the underlying pain always returns slightly before it should. The breezy sweep of Bobbie's staging, David Korins's candy-colored set design, and Donald Holder's gently jolting lights create the right circus-of-the-bizarre atmosphere; the work just no longer feels bizarre enough.

Socarides, making Matt the perennial straight man lost amid his off-kilter relationships, is a potent normalizing force; unfortunately, the play needs to be anything and everything but normal. Matters are not helped by Grant and Welch, who are delightful to watch, but bring too much grounded normalcy to Bette and Boo and get lost in the dizziness of their unraveling life more than in the play's rhythms. More natural character actors, like the greasy-smooth Glover, the deliciously out-of-sorts Hagerty, and every other performer - including Zoe Lister-Jones and Heather Burns, both wonderful as Bette's put-upon sisters - might help recapture some of that now-vanished spunk.

But the deficiencies the play now demonstrates transcend partial miscasting in this, or any, production. Bette and Boo has always been one of Durang's less-focused plays, one that brings together perhaps too many of his favored themes under one halfway-collapsed umbrella. But it provided a dry antidote to the deluge of social absurdity until that became all the world had to offer. Bobbie and his company are hardy souls for braving the downpour, but some storms are too much for any ensemble or play, however solid, to weather unscathed.

The Marriage of Bette and Boo
Through September 7
Roundabout Theatre Company Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout Theatre Company

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