An autobiographical play takes a hard look at the life of the author's parents.
We all have our ways of dealing with the past. Some forgive and forget, some like to talk about those mushy things called feelings, and some just go straight for the bottle. Then, there are those, like playwright Christopher Durang, who take the road less traveled and choose to put themselves--and their past--onstage in a satiric reenactment of the messed up crap they went through. That's exactly what Durang does in his autobiographical play, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which bluntly narrates his father's alcoholism, his mother's multiple miscarriages, and the overwhelming anger and disappointment that endured through the course of their marriage. Not only does he replay his tragic childhood by having his stage self, Matt, alternate between narrating and acting, but Durang actually played himself in the very first 1985 production of Bette and Boo at the Public/Newman Theatre in New York City. Some might call it masochistic, but what better way to confront one's demons than to rewrite them with a touch of humor?
The play opens with Bette's (Megan Therese Rippey) and Boo's (Christopher Krysztofiak) family lined up singing at the young couple's wedding. The ecstatic Bette hugs her new husband and makes a declaration we hear several more times as the play moves on: "Let's have a baby, Boo!" Initially, it seems as though their marriage will lead to a fairy tale ending, happy fat babies and all, but as we are introduced to various family members, the potential for disaster becomes clear. Boo's deadbeat father, Karl (Steve Lichtenstein), is a drunk, and a mean one at that. Bette's sister, Emily (Kate McKenna), deals with a bad case of nerves, and Bette and Boo must learn how to live with themselves, and each other, after their first miscarriage. With personal problems flying left and right, it's almost hard to keep track of who is afflicted with what, and family ties and individual wills deteriorate quickly. Throughout the chaos, Matt (Michael Zemarel), as a young college student, steps in to narrate, and at times, melds with the scene to play himself as a little boy.
Durang's running dead baby joke highlights the pain behind much of the humor in Bette and Boo. The doctor, played by Daniel Douek, comes out holding a bundle and presents it to the anxious father. Rather than giving it over, though, he holds up the baby deliberately, as if offering a sacrifice, and drops it on the ground. When the baby is found to actually be alive, we laugh, as the doctor shrugs and walks away. When the doctor drops the baby from Bette's second pregnancy, we laugh again, but stop when Boo quietly stoops over the cold body. The third time this happens, a vague nausea sets in as the thud echoes through the room.
Rippey does an outstanding job of portraying the various emotional states Bette goes through. As the peppy and naïve Bette, Rippey dances around in her wedding dress, which she wears throughout the play, batting her eyelashes at us. As the emotionally numb Bette, who has regressed to a state of eerie silence, Rippey sits across from the deranged Emily and stares vacantly into the crowd. As the angry, fed-up Bette, she screams with such an intensity that you almost feel like a scared little kid watching your parents fight. It's an impressive portrayal of a hair-raising emotional roller coaster.
Janise Whelan's Soot draws a surprising amount of sympathy. It becomes obvious that Soot, Boo's mother, is a doormat in her relationship with her husband, Karl. At several points, Whelan's performance as the battered woman, who still retains a puppy-like eagerness to please, makes us cringe. When someone asks how she got the name Soot, she turns to Karl, who responds with a sneer, "She's the dumbest white woman alive." The way that Whelan shuffles around anxiously looking for a drink for Karl, and delivers her lines with a sickening sweetness in spite of Karl's abuse, makes her performance as Soot heartwrenching.
The set design by Darla Luke was impressive, as the play, which moves briskly through its 33 blending scenes, required many quick and fluid scene changes. Bette and Boo really does follow the couple everywhere, from the chapel to the emergency room to the house and back again in short order. Luke deals with the multiple changes by using three triangular swivel panels that rotate to reveal each setting.
Bette and Boo is a poignant work that provokes genuine laughter, but at the same time, doesn't let us forget the profound pain that lies just below.
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