The Marriage of Bette and Boo
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
July 16, 2008
I would like to talk about Christopher Durang's excellent 1985 play, The Marriage of Bette & Boo—currently playing in a mostly excellent production by the Roundabout Theatre Company and directed by Walter Bobbie—without being overly impressed by the playwright's originally intrepid satirical takes on Catholicism, alcoholism, miscarriages or the (now over-diagnosed) "dysfunctional family." As subjects, these are no longer news, but Durang is not relying here on topicality. To see beyond these easily (though rarely so sharply) lampooned cultural targets is to see a story about people using the (seemingly) rational alternatives available to them to insure—or at least anesthetize—themselves against a fate that could give a damn about their finely-embroidered logic of what should happen when two people "come together as one."
This autobiographical-book-report-cum-vaudeville comprising 33 short scenes is narrated by Matt, the son and sole living offspring of the eponymous couple. His frame of reference—fragments of memories, inherited anecdotes, snippets of family apocrypha, and meticulous readings of Thomas Hardy—frames the play. If Puck went to grad school for psychology, he would be very close to Charles Socarides's Matt; the glint in his eye, however, belies less amusement than mystification (and ultimately exasperation) at what neurotics these mortals be. Ever the (ostensible) optimist, this young man would like nothing more than to piece together some preventative potion that would ward off the disorders that impaired his parents' judgment and sense of reality. Interestingly, he never indicates what he might do with this privileged information; it is as though he must come to the right conclusions about these reckless, ill-conceived marriages before he can safely consider what kind of love (which, in this context, seems such a dangerous word) he might want for himself.
The outspoken enigma at the center of this play is more Bette than Boo, whom Bette carries around like a teddy bear whose stuffing has come out. But both are dealing with some unspelunked cave inside—he fills and refills his with alcohol; she fills and refills hers with babies. That these babies are stillborn (save for Matt, of course) due to the interaction of his Rh positive blood and her Rh negative is not interpreted (by her at least) as a stark metaphor of conjugal incompatibility; this is what makes Bette—a pragmatist without intelligence, insight, or imagination—one of the most winning, least pitiable tragic heroines. In her portrayal of a character so quick to augment or ablate the personalities of others according to her narcissistic whims, Kate Jennings Grant is not so much an actress as an incarnation—a pure passage to the hilarious and messy soul of this play. And if Bette is a woman in desperate search of reassuring reflective surfaces, Boo is a shadow in search of a man to follow. In the role, Christopher Evan Welch is such a haunting and unknowable presence, whose most profound bond seems to be with the dead babies he gently scoops from the floor each time the blithe doctor enters and lets a motionless bundle plummet to the ground (one of the guiltier laughs in the play).
The other reason not to miss this production is the opportunity to see Victoria Clark and Julie Hagerty, both of whom are such gracious and generous ensemble members that their stealing of the show is more an inevitability than a vain effort. As Bette's mother Margaret, Clark is so sweetly selfish, so unmaliciously delighted by her children's legion failed attempts to separate from her and home, that it would seem a crime against nature to ask her to behave differently, despite the confusion of Bette and her comically-damaged siblings. Hagerty's Soot, the mother of Boo who can't seem to remember how she got her dignity-free nickname, is so tickled by her husband's denigrating observations ("Soot is the dumbest white woman alive") that she seems to transubstantiate his every obloquious remark into the quirkiest of marriage proposals.
John Glover, Adam Lefrevre, and Terry Beaver as, respectively, Karl (Boo's appealingly nasty father), Paul (Bette's appealingly unintelligible father), and the Doctor / Father Donnelly (the two "authority figures" so bored with their expertise that consolation is barely an afterthought) all give performances more than worthy of mention. I am sad, however, to report that two of my favorite characters seem dull here due to ill-conceived performances. Heather Burns as Bette's sister Emily, the quintessential guilt-ridden Catholic, is a wash of frenetic gestures (though when she calms down by the end of the play she is genuinely moving), and Zoe Lister-Jones, as Bette's astonishingly angry other sister Joan, gives us variations on a smirk and little else.
But Walter Bobbie's production has such transcendent moments that the disappointments are ultimately quibbles. Durang's exquisite final scene, in which Matt witnesses a gentle and affectionate reunion between his now-divorced parents at the hospital where Bette is being treated for cancer, is—in the hands of Socarides, Grant, and Welch—as good as theatre gets. I cannot properly describe these last few moments—so unafflicted by hope or despair—because they affect me so profoundly still.