Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo follows in the great American dramatic tradition of the family tragedy. This work, like O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, is a disturbing, insightful and fascinating family portrait. The script highlights the issues of dreams unattained and reality denied as it tells the story of Bette and Boo Hudlocke, June and Ward Cleaver gone terribly wrong. The young lovers marry after knowing each other only two months, and by their honeymoon the traces of their later neuroses are already apparent.
The Marriage of Bette and Boo
Directed by David Eggar and Marc Spraragen
In the Mather House TV Room
Through October 27
Unlike Beaver, their only son, Skippy (David Javerbaum), passes his childhood largely ignored by his self-absorbed parents. Ironically, he is the only child of a mother who claims to want a large, fairytale family. But her dreams turn nightmarish as she has stillborn child after stillborn child. With the loss of each, Bette (Maile Meloy) retreats further into a fantasy world populated by the characters of Pooh's Corner. As she becomes more and more infantile in her blind desire to have children, Boo (Woody Hill) becomes increasingly estranged from her. He eventually finds solace in drink, and Bette comes to blame her unhappiness on his excesses rather than hers.
If circumstances were not horrendous enough, Bette and Boo's parents exacerbate the couple's marital troubles. Bette's mother, Margaret (Sheila McDonald), derives a certain pleasure from the disintegration of her daughter's marriage. Boo's parents Soot (Randi Wolkenbreit) and Karl (Philip Munger) are not exactly paragons of familial support. And in Marriage, as in other Durang works, the Catholic Church assumes a patriarchal role. Like the other parent figures in the play, the parish priest, Father Donnally (Tom Chick), cannot give them constructive advice.
Skippy is the narrator of this rather macabre tale. In telling it, he asks the audience to help him make sense of his family. Javerbaum tries to capture Skippy's attempts at objectivity, but his portrayal is far too blase. He is, after all, discussing his twisted family life.
One salient example is Javerbaum's performance in a scene with Hill. It is an awkward dinner between a young man in academia and his elderly father, but Javerbaum diminishes the uncomfortable and pitiful nature of the encounter by walking offstage seemingly unperturbed.
The dearth of inspired performances is largely the fault of directors David Eggar and Marc Spraragen. The directorial analysis of the characters' fanaticism is superficial; most subtlety is abandoned for effect. Though the characters are unable to see the fanaticism in their lives, the directors have a responsibilty not only to recognize it, but to flesh it out. But in this play, there is no theatrical middle ground--if Javerbaum underplays his role, Munger and Wolkenbreit more than compensate with their overacting. Munger's portrayal of the crude misogynist, Karl, is far too simplistic; he wears a foolish leer on his face throughout the play. Wolkenbreit flatly renders Soot as the stereotypically silly woman.
Though the moments of stellar acting are often lost amidst the general heavy-handedness, the direction works better in those jarring moments when humor springs from tragedy. It is then that the skillful black humor of Durang's script emerges. Chick for one handles this humor deftly--the scene in which Father Donnally denounces the church is delightfully ironic in the context of the devout family he addresses. McDonald also has a fine comic touch; she is wonderfully coy as Margaret, the subtly disparaging mother.
Thankfully, the lead players also give strong performances. Hill is believable as the broken, nostalgic Boo; his voice softens as he journeys back in time, and he whimsically captures Boo's befuddlement. And Meloy is convincingly hysterical as Bette--she even looks lost--but she sometimes flounders in the quieter moments of the script.
Though the Mather House production often captures the sense of desperation and absurdity of Marriage, it suffers from a coarse treatment of a complex and rich script. It is this fault that renders an otherwise promising play merely mediocre.