BWW Reviews: BETTE & BOO - Savage, Despairing Comedy with Sliver of Hope
It always a pleasure to see a well-done revival of a classic. Fell's Point Corner Theatre's new production of Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette & Boo (1985) is a case in point.
While no one would call The Marriage of Bette & Boo a good time, it's terribly funny. This thinly-fictionalized portrait of dysfunction all over Durang's family tree nails an almost universal experience: life in alcoholic and/or abusive families. And when the participants reflect on what is happening to them, and their role in it, the result can be bitterly hilarious. Durang has written that there would be moments in the Alanon gatherings of his youth when someone's account would be interrupted by general laughter, including that of the speaker, because the crazy thinking family misery springs from and engenders are objectively funny, however tragic it may also turn out to be.
And what a lineup of dysfunction Durang provides! There's Bette (Megan Therese Rippey), trapped in a marriage to a drunk, and full of frustrated maternal longings, able to conceive easily yet with one exception unable to deliver a live child. Boo, her husband (Christopher Krysztofiak), completes the couple's insanity by mostly denying he has a problem, and calling her criticism of his drinking and alcoholic behavior the cause of their unhappiness. There's their son Matt (Michael Zemarel), forced into the role of go-between, tale-bearer, and premature adult, as his parents enact their childish rituals. Bette's sister Emily (Kate McKenna) lives in a haze of neurasthenic Catholic guilt, and her other sister Joan (Holly Gibbs) bears up through a long-running collapse of a marriage to an offstage (and always absent) husband. Bette's dad Paul (J.R. Lyston) suffers from what appears to be a post-stroke speech impediment that renders his long, impassioned harangues meaningless. Bette's mom Margaret (Helenmary Ball) usually looks the other way as her daughters' lives spiral out of control, but in one candid monologue admits how much pleasure she derives from the artificial prolongation of her maternal role their failures necessitate. That is to say, she carries on this routine until senility overtakes her - a senility we witness in painful detail. And rounding out the picture are Boo's parents Karl (Steve Lichtenstein) and Soot (Janise Whelan), he a verbal abuser of the first order, she a punching bag nonpareil.
Tying all this dysfunction together is the Catholic Church of the 50s and 60s, holding itself out as the source of answers to all questions, standards for all behavior, and solutions to all problems. Yet as Father Donnally, the parish priest, is forced to admit in the midst of a hilarious rant while conducting a parish retreat, the Church forbids all of the obvious ways of relieving marital dysfunction, like divorce and infidelity.
Matt, the stand-in for Durang, solves the problem as best he can, by running away to college and graduate school, and burying himself in endless essays on novelist Thomas Hardy that morph into obsessive musings on Matt's family. The choice of Hardy is an interesting one, because his characters never catch a break. Hardy seems determined to create a fictional universe in which only unhappy endings are possible, so much so that it sometimes strains credulity and the reader's patience.
Not so with Durang, who breaks free of the Thomas Hardy trap in an unexpected way, for the last twenty minutes of the play. There Bette and Boo, despite the horrors of their years together, despite having been divorced, nonetheless perform the last and arguably one of the most important things that couple do for each other, jointly see one of them through death. And they do it with a relaxed love for each other that is both tender and credible. Death, ironically, is the thing that keeps their whole story from being tragic. There is even the slight suggestion at the end that God, maybe even the Catholic God Durang and Matt have rejected, might be in His heaven after all, and all right with the world.
Of its sort this play is perfect. Every character in the ensemble gets a certain amount of time the spotlight in which to do a schtick, and a decent reading of the lines as written is inevitably going to produce a number of laughs. Given a gift-wrapped vehicle like this, any director should be able to make it work. Yet Director Barry Feinstein displays a sure touch that polishes the Durang machinery and makes it function with sparkle.
And the entire cast performs creditably. Worthy of particular mention are Megan Therese Rippey who well-embodies the bright hopes, dashed dreams, and eventual acceptance Bette progresses through, Kate McKenna as the compulsively self-abasing Emily, and J.T. Lyston, who does an incredible job embodying a character with a speech impediment (possibly Director Feinstein's day job as a speech pathologist could have something to do with it). And mention should be made of Daniel Douek, an unusual case of unconventional casting. Although Father Donnally was obviously written as an Irish-American parish priest, Douek (per the program notes) is Argentinian in origin, and sounds it. Hearing the platitudes of the Faith mouthed (and despaired of in the same breath) with a sort of Jose Jimenez accent seems to take nothing away from the comedy. Indeed, in some mysterious way, it makes it even funnier.
Bette & Boo is a young man's play. The angry despair that propelled it bears the mark of fresh experience. (Durang's father was already dead when it was first produced, but Durang showed an early draft to his mother, who approved of it, to his relief. Yet one would think the savagery would be almost too much for a mother to bear - or for a son to sustain throughout a lifetime.) As well-machined as this play is, the emotions are youthful and raw. An older playwright might have pulled a few more punches. But few, old or young, could have produced a better-made play.
Durang's are punches no rational theatergoer would want pulled in any event. And Fell's Point Corner Theatre pounds away with them. Audiences will be wincing and laughing throughout the evening.
The Marriage of Bette & Boo, by Christopher Durang. Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore, Maryland. April 16 to May 2, 2010. Tickets $17. www.fpct.org. Adult issues, adult situations, mild profanity.