The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Christopher Durang’s dark 1985 comedy about his own nutty family that has received a sparkling revival at the Laura Pels Theatre, is a peculiar pleasure.
Mr. Durang has furtively written a tragedy disguised as mad farce. His famously absurdist comedy is good-natured and grotesque, and awfully sad, especially when it becomes alarmingly clear that his apparently adorably eccentric family is more or less insane.
That we might easily find ourselves identifying with Mr. Durang’s lunatic cast of characters is all to the good. The Marriage of Bette and Boo is the modern comedy about dysfunctional American family life (predating by a generation the excesses of August: Osage County). I first saw its hurtling 33 scenes some 20 years ago at the Public Theater and thought then, as now: This is some weird play by a wonderfully perplexed, original mind.
Mr. Durang looks back on a maniacally cheerful Catholic mother who gives birth to four stillborn babies, each one dumped splat! onto the hospital floor by an indifferent doctor; a stupefied alcoholic father; an asthmatic hysteric who tries to play the cello; and, among much else, a senile stroke victim with a serious speech defect who dies eating birthday cake.
Small wonder the dramatist’s alter ego, Matt, solemnly concludes about his hopeless quest to make sense of it all that “with perseverance and persistence, it is possible not even to get out of bed in the morning.”
THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO isn’t only about the disastrous marriage; it’s about their son Matt (played by Mr. Durang in the original production, and by the affable Charles Socarides in this revival), who relates the story of his upbringing like Tom in that other memory play, The Glass Menagerie. Matt’s much funnier, though. Here he’s anticipating the regulated joy of another ruinous Christmas with his family:
“Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman,” he announces studiously. “It was Sir Ethelbert’s hope that by setting aside specific days on which to celebrate things—the birth of Christ, the death of Christ, Beowulf’s defeat over Grendel—that the population at large would fall into a collective deep depression.”
Such studiously straight-faced diversions and asides are among the delights of Mr. Durang’s unusual combination of collegiate sketches, cartoon-esque reality and unsparing emotional truth. Only Mr. Durang’s Matt would compare the tortured lives of his parents to Hardy’s view of the world as a catastrophe in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Or—by rote—to Conrad. (“The horror, the horror.”) Or list among his very favorite movies Citizen Kane, The Parent Trap, The Seventh Seal, The Singing Nun, The Nun Also Rises, The Nun Who Came to Dinner and The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Silliness, I’m happy to say, is among Mr. Durang’s unembarrassed indulgences. Family life, the Church, tortured Catholic guilt, penitential smugness and God are his habitual targets. He’s the only playwright I know who consistently argues with God (and wins).
“I don’t think God punishes people for specific things,” Matt suggests at one point without rancor. “I think he punishes people in general for no reason.”
The Marriage of Bette and Boo’s hapless Father Donnally continues the great priestly tradition of Alan Bennett’s cliché-spouting vicar in the 1960s satire Beyond the Fringe. (“You know, Life,” intoned Mr. Bennett. “Life, it’s rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. …”) Father Donnally, however, offers something startlingly new: He likes to impersonates bacon sizzling in a saucepan. It’s his party trick. Father Donnally has long since given up the ghost: