Long before television's "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," playwright Christopher Durang was mocking the American family life, religion and societal norms in plays like Baby With the Bathwater" and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which premiered at the Public in 1985 (four years before "Simpsons") and which opened last night in a revival at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. While Durang's work is always a welcome treat, the ubiquity of irreverent and often politically incorrect humor in our world today seems to have blunted the edge of "Marriage," which, though frequently hilarious, cutting and touching (sometimes all at once), never achieves a sustained buoyancy that makes for a truly satisfying night at the theater.
Perhaps it's because Durang tries to achieve so much in this piece that examines the lives of its title characters from their marriage filled with ditzy optimism through to its dissolution. The dizzyingly episodic piece (33 scenes that unfold within a floating crimson stage of equally crimson sliding panels from scenic designer David Korins) is narrated by Matt (a sympathetic Charles Socarides), Bette and Boo's only child. Now an adult, he's trying to make sense of his life with his parents, and in between his attempts to contextualize his upbringing, he also muses on Thomas Hardy's novels and some of his favorite films. There's an erudition to these sequences, but it detracts from the main event here – the comic chaos of life with Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) and Boo (Christopher Evan Welch) and all of Matt's extended family.
Comedy isn't the only aspect of life with Matt's alcoholic dad and desperate to be fertile mother. There's also tragedy. After having Matt, Bette's children are all stillborn. Bette's compulsively apologetic sister Emily (Heather Burns) is institutionalized following a break-down. The other sibling, Joan (whose bitterly acerbic barbs are delivered with panache by Zoe Lister-Jones), endures a marriage to and divorce from an unseen Greek man, whom her family hates. All the while though, Joan remains unbearably – at least to Bette who longs for a bevy of children – fertile.
The three sisters' neuroses and personalities are not all that surprising. They've been raised by the perpetually chipper and platitude-spouting Margaret (Victoria Clark) and the incomprehensible Paul (Adam Lefevre), who speaks only in gibberish and brings to mind doddering and senile Grandpa Simpson.
On his father's side, there's Karl (impeccably rendered by John Glover), also alcoholic with a truly vicious sense of humor, and Soot (played with almost luminescent cheeriness by Julie Hagerty), whose dimwittedness is not only a delight to audiences, it's a constant source of amusement to her husband, who uses every opportunity to pronounce her the "dumbest white woman on Earth." (Imagine a dark well-to-do WASP incarnation of Marge and Homer and you will completely know who these two characters are.)
When these unfortunate souls need assistance, they turn to their local priest (Terry Beaver), who offers little solace. He unenthusiastically doles out church doctrine laced with contempt, and seems much more at ease when, in the middle of a couples' counseling retreat – attended by all of the family – lays on the floor to do his impersonation of a strip of bacon in a frying pan.
Such moments of lunacy abound in "Marriage." At a disastrous Thanksgiving celebration Bette turns growling harridan to hysterical effect. A birthday celebration for Joan proves to be equally hilarious even as sadness creeps into the proceedings. When Bette's alone and wanders – both figuratively and literally – into a dream world in which she dreams of having children that she will name after the characters from A.A. Milne's "Pooh" stories, one can't help but giggle.
Yet, despite a plethora of fine writing and some sterling performances, the play, and director Walter Bobbie's staging, vacillates. At one moment the audience may be roaring with laughter, this is followed by moments in which a semi-pall seems to have fallen over theatergoers. Generally, whenever Jennings and Clark, dressed in chipper 50s era cocktail dresses with matching pumps, of course, from costume designer Susan Hilferty, are onstage, laughter is the rule. Jennings navigates the fine edge of comedy and tragedy to perfection. Clark, who seems to be able to elicit a laugh just by arching an eyebrow or by staring confusedly at a plate of cake, offers up Durang's zingers with laser-like precision.
It's primarily these actresses' work that casts the most lasting thrall in "Marriage," which has many absurd elements that have been co-opted by both live and animated sitcoms since the play's debut. It may be the latter shows' ability to stretch absurdity to even further extremes that has sapped "Marriage" of some of its potency, but there's still much to be cherished in this "Marriage."
---- Andy Propst
The Marriage of Bette and Boo continues through September 7 at the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street). Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm, with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $$63.75-$73.75 and can be purchased by calling 212-719-1300. Ticketing, and further information, is available online at www.roundabouttheatre.org.