It’s a good idea to tell people, before they see a Christopher Durang play for the first time, that it’s ok to laugh. The stroke-victim father with the partially paralyzed face, the stillborn babies dropped with a thud on the floor by the obstetrician — it’s all part of the fun. The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Durang’s play based on his parents’ marriage and his upbringing, skips through spousal abuse, infant death and deep-seated marital dysfunction, so a talented director and a cast with good comedic timing are essential to its execution. Roundabout’s current production has both, but it’s far from flawless.
Very little needs to be added to this play to make it funny. Broadway veteran Terry Beaver, cast as both the aforementioned obstetrician and as Father Donnelly, understands this: a priest who avoids offering marital counsel by imitating a piece of bacon in a frying pan is funny by itself. Beaver accesses the comedy that lurks alongside it’s repressed furor, with his perfectly deadpan renderings. Tony-winner Victoria Clark, as matriarch Margaret Brennan, gets it too: when she laughs at the sight of her institutionalized daughter Emily (Heather Burns) frantically playing the cello and baby-crazed Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) on her knees praying for her children to live, we laugh with her. She’s funny because she pinpoints the absurd in the tragic and because she’s horrifying, not because she’s acting wacky.
Playing the show for laughs undercuts Burns’ performance as neurotic sister Emily: she’s never believably wracked with guilt, only squealing, clownish and irritating to watch. Same goes for Zoe Lister-Jones as disillusioned sassmouth Joanie. Charles Socarides, however, is visibly damaged but wryly funny as Durang stand-in Matt. Jennings Grant and Christopher Evan Welch grin and dance through their ill-conceived marriage as the titular Bette and Boo, at turns heartbreaking, irksome and terribly comical. Jennings Grant can get a little screechy, but, of course, that’s written into her part. She’s adept at creating comedy from Bette’s guilt and neuroses, eliciting laughs when she tells her son, “I don’t want to put any pressure you, but you’re the only reason I have left for living.” Adam Lefevre, as Bette’s mute father Paul Brennan, succeeds at making his audience address, and laugh at, partial paralysis — a feat that speaks to his talent as a comedic actor. And John Glover and Julie Hagerty are so sad and yet so funny as in-laws bound together mainly by a history of abuse.
Director Walter Bobbie uses David Korin’s minimalist set design (comprised mainly of shifting red panels and a signifying piece of furniture for each scene) to full advantage, creating sight gags from scene transitions that complement the play’s absurdist tone. He seems to have relied too heavily on powerhouses Beaver and Clark to gloss over performance inconsistencies, though. Their appearance onstage comes as a kind of relief, or rather an assurance of strong execution.
The Marriage of Bette and Boo is a decadent tangle of black comedy and true tragedy, and it falls on the actors to guide their audience through it. The Roundabout’s cast does this well, with the exception of a few grating performances. The production is quick, smart and complicated, deftly tracking a fragile boundary between human horror and utter farce.