THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO
In Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You playwright Christopher Durang slapped the Catholic Church square in the face and earned an Obie for his effort. He deserved it. It was a fine satire, grimly funny, and honest in its own way. But there was something more to it–revenge. Having served 11 years of hard time in Catholic schools myself, I can share the satisfaction of Durang’s revenge. Grudge plays like this have their broadest appeal when their subjects are sex, politics, religion, social or cultural institutions, that sort of thing. Yet in The Marriage of Bette and Boo Durang’s satire has a more bitter and personal edge to it, as if he were attacking not the institutions of family and marriage, but his own family. The result strikes me as self-indulgent, and not quite so amusing or accessible in the bargain.
The story of Bette and Boo’s marriage is told by Matt, the only one of their five children to be born alive. Matt has kept a notebook, recording the details of his unhappy childhood, and he refers to this notebook as he introduces scenes in the play. He doesn’t draw a pretty picture. Boo is a benign and withdrawn alcoholic. Bette is a relentless, neurotic bitch who pursues her juvenile fantasy of a large family through miscarriage after miscarriage. One grandfather has a speech impediment, and the other is a misogynistic bore. Everyone except Matt, the narrator-victim, is a misshapen excuse for a human being.
This seems dishonest. First of all, the play isn’t about Bette and Boo, as the title suggests, but, elliptically, about Matt. Now if Durang (by way of Matt) chooses to ridicule his family, fine, but he could stand to be more up-front about it. Instead he presents Matt as an uncontested star witness, and then halfheartedly tosses in a couple scenes that purport to elicit sympathy for Bette and Boo, but are really sops to mitigate the metallic taste of the rapacious comedy.
Not that the play isn’t cleverly written and sometimes hysterically funny, particularly in the second act. As for the first act, if it were feasible to leave at intermission, I would have. Since Matt tells the story more or less chronologically, the early scenes are shorter and more cartoonlike, which is meant to reflect the simple, abbreviated perceptions of Matt’s early childhood. Durang’s sense of humor is mostly slash-and-run in this act: one-liners accompanied by snapshot caricatures of Matt’s family as an assortment of stooges and mental cases. It gets old quickly, the way Don Rickles gets old.
Act two was a complete turnabout, and had me wishing I’d arrived an hour and a half late. The scenes are more sustained in this act, the comedy arising out of situation and character interplay. My favorite scenes barely involved Bette and Boo, or even Matt, but focused instead on Father Donnally, the parish priest. Marc Vann emerges as the star of the show here when he (as Father Donnally) delivers the eulogy at Matt’s grandfather’s funeral. He didn’t know the deceased very well, but that doesn’t stop him from comparing the man’s speech impediment to the accent used by Percival, his “colored” garbage man. And the sinister yet friendly Father Donnally–who is something like Mr. Rogers after a few drinks–launches in on a grotesquely funny impression of Percival’s way of meeting hardship with a bluebird on his shoulder.
Donnally does other impressions too–of frying bacon and percolating coffee–when he hosts the “Young Marrieds Retreat.” These impressions are wonderful comic bits, and Vann gets the most out of them, yet they’re also a relief from the grudge comedy of act one. This lightens up the play, allowing for more meaningful satire, such as Donnally’s explanation of the church’s stance on marriage and divorce. The real problem, argues Donnally, is that people don’t think before they get married, and wind up with no common interests, hating each other, and then coming to him and expecting him to work out a solution. At this point Donnally throws up his arms in a dramatic shrug that–I love it–mimics the posture of the crucified Christ directly upstage. “Why does God make people so stupid?” laments Father Donnally.
As for the Center Theater’s production, the most serious flaw is Dale Calandra’s direction. The first act especially is in deep trouble; it has no ensemble, no rhythm, no sense of humor, no style, and no consideration for the finite amount of time in the lives of the people in the audience. And these are only the minor faults. What Calandra has most of all failed to see, or compelled his cast to understand, is that the first act characterizations must be shaped as if by a child’s mind, which is not cynical, which is naive but not stupid, and which is capable of forming original impressions of people without resorting to shopworn stereotypes of geeks and nerds. Act two succeeds, I believe, only because the cast has more freedom to operate independently of Calandra’s direction within the longer scenes.
There are acting problems as well, particularly in the major roles. Joy Thorbjornsen is consistently thoughtless in her portrayal of Boo–which would be brilliant if she could make that a character’s and not an actor’s trait–and reveals nothing of the implicitly weird relationship between Bette and Matt. Peter Peavoy (as Boo) improves dramatically in the second act but still remains remote and unreadable. And all I see in Edward Bevan (as Matt) is the handsome, bland anonymity of a print model. His clothes become him, and in this case he’s dressed as a casual preppie.
More interesting and definitive acting is available from supporting actors Marc Vann, whom I’ve already praised, Kevin Beyer, and Kelly Thompson. Beyer plays Paul, Bette’s father (the one with the speech impediment). He not only exploits the vocal gag for its superficial silliness, but also earnestly plays the subtext to his gibberish, and makes his inability to be understood an intrinsic character response. Kelly Thompson plays Bette’s sister, Emily, who suffers from a mea maxima culpa guilt complex. Thompson’s performance, initially an insufferable caricature, improves as the play improves. Apparently Thompson requires direction in order to be effective, but, lacking that, works best in the scenes she shares with the better actors.
In retrospect, I realize I most enjoyed those parts of the play that were only loosely related to Durang’s oedipal vendetta. Partially, that may be due to a personal bias, since I prefer religious irreverence to parent-bashing. But I’ve got nothing against grudges, bashing, revenge, whatever you call it, as an artistic impulse. So if you’re going to bash someone, do it right. Be honest about it. Let them have it in the face.