Playwright Christopher Durang is recognized for his gift of turning what the world might see as the ordinary into the outrageous, the idiosyncratic into the idiotic, the peculiar into the perverse, and the neurotic into the demented. He has earned renown and gained a secure place among other American playwrights who delve into the oeuvre known as dark comedy.
The theatrically astute Durang uses his jaundiced eye, cynical observations, and scarred psyche to comically dramatize people and situations that he sees as conspicuously out of sync, devoid of logic, and completely incapable of reason. A smartly directed and wonderfully acted revival of “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” offers proof that his style, personalized subject matter, and uniquely skewed perspective remain as trenchant and provocative as when this play first opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 1985.
This is not to say that the 33 sketch-like scenes that depict the downward spiral of a dysfunctional Roman Catholic family, the perils and sorrows of an unhappy marriage, and the conflicted memories and assumptions of a troubled son (Durang, in his autobiographical mode) completely fulfill its promise or potential. Act I requires patience as we grow accustomed to the seriously off-the-wall behavior of characters who are as grotesquely ludicrous as they are also heartbreakingly lucid.
There is little in the initial 18 scenes that make up Act I that appears either committed to a coherent dramatic arc or to a thematic confluence. Nevertheless, these scenes do serve to introduce us in fits and starts to the incontestable nuts under scrutiny as well as to the sturdy bolts that secure young Matt (a nicely modulated performance by Charles Socarides), to the action as the point-of-view character. Matt’s attempt to rationalize, empathize, and/or relate to what he sees going on around him, however, is muted to the point of detachment. There is also no resolve in the sense that what Matt is sharing with us has been either an emotional purging or an intellectual venting. Despite this inconclusiveness, the play remains alternately sad and funny.
Most of the amusement experienced and the miseries depicted come from the often laugh-inducing, but more often painfully brutal, characterizations. This is, of course, as it should be, under Walter Bobbie’s meticulously observant direction.
Matt’s family and extended family are fitted neatly into a stark but cleverly reconfiguring picture frame, the work of designer David Korins. This portrait of a family is rooted, however tenuously, in Matt’s attempt to understand the whys and wherefores of his parents’ disintegrating marriage from a silly, chaotic wedding through growing incompatibility and ultimately to divorce and eventually death. He says: “When ordering reality, it is necessary to accumulate all the facts pertaining to the matter at hand. When all the facts are not immediately available, one must try to reconstruct them by considering oral history, hearsay, gossip, and apocryphal stories.”
The parents — Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) and Boo (Christopher Evan Welch) — are, at first, breezily in love, married with dispatch by a feckless but funny priest (Terry Beacher). But marital bliss isn’t in the cards for the couple. Bette’s desire for a big family is ill-fated. After Matt’s birth she has four consecutive stillbirths. Most poignant is her naming each baby after characters created by A.A. Milne. Grant’s performance is a treasure of credible but significantly daffy mood swings. One of the play’s more mordant conceits is watching the doctor (also played by Beacher) drop each dead baby to the floor and callously exit.
Boo reacts to Bette’s increasingly obsessive/compulsive behavior by drinking. He is soon enough an alcoholic like Karl (John Glover), his boorish autocratic father. Even less of a pretty sight is Karl’s conspicuous disdain and humiliation of his scatter-brained wife, Soot (Julie Hagerty, who is sublime as the clueless wife whom Karl refers to as “the dumbest white woman alive”).
Holiday gatherings at which both families collide are devastating. It is Bette’s family that earns most of our laughs and empathy as their in-fighting is filtered through the matter-of-fact control of Bette’s mother, Margaret (delightfully interpreted by Victoria Clark). Adam LeFevre is a howl as her husband, Paul, whose speech impediment makes him completely unintelligible. Completing the family circle are married sister Joan (Zoe Lister-Jones), who radiates sarcasm and nastiness, and Emily (Heather Burns), a congenitally apologetic, religious zealot.
Not one to temper his bitterness toward the Catholic Church in “Sister Mary Ignatious Explains It All For You” and “Miss Witherspoon,” or contain his sometimes childish penchant for campy send-ups like “Adrift in Macao” or “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” among other gems, Durang was at his best in “Beyond Therapy” and his Tony-nominated “A History of the American Film.”
Like the best absurdist playwrights, Durang fills his socio-political themes with jokes and levity. It’s best if you let him explain it all for you. HHH
— Simon Saltzman
“The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” through September 7, Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $63.75 to $73.75. 212-719-1300.