Seen Off Broadway: I recently sat down with set designer David Korins to talk about his work on the Roundabout revival of Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and our chat (about that and the Delacorte production of Hamlet) will appear in an upcoming issue of Live Design. I’m glad we got it in, because I can tell you little about the design here. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact is a very high recommendation: The show is so seamless, so all one piece, that you absorb it minute-to-minute. (I know I’m in trouble at the theatre when all I can remember is the costumes, or the lights, or the sound effects.) Thus, this revival of Durang’s 1985 bracing black comedy is a near-total success, as everything works in unison. It rivets our attention by not demanding it.
The two-hour show is told in 33 scenes—this must’ve seemed like rapid-fire back in those horse-and-buggy times, but today when our attention spans are all the more shortened, the pace is easier to process. At the most basic level, it’s Walter Bobbie, a whiz with comedy and pathos, directing favorite old hands John Glover, Victoria Clark, and Julie Hagerty, so what’s not to like? The sacred cows of Catholicism, motherhood, and parenting are gored throughout, and if the notion of blood (reinforced by Korins’ crimson-color sliding panels) upsets you, there’s always Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy as an option.
Durang’s play has a John Irving feel to it, but there is precious little to offset the darkness. The rebound romance and too-fast marriage of Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) and Boo (Christopher Evan Welch) quickly founders, under the strain of their two misfit families (Clark is Bette’s willfully oblivious mother, Glover Boo’s hard-drinking, obnoxious dad and Hagerty his cheerfully haggard mother) and Bette’s quixotic desire for a large family. A son, Matt (Charles Socarides), is born, to relate much of the story in flashbacks as he studies Thomas Hardy in college and can’t separate fact from fiction. Matt, we learn, was largely forgotten as Boo sank into alcoholism and Bette endured stillbirth after stillbirth, which Acme Sound Partners conveys with a large “klonk” on the stage when the attending physician unceremoniously drops the dead infants in swaddling clothes onstage. There is abundant humor, though none of it light: A Thanksgiving melee that erupts between Bette’s and Boo’s families is painfully laugh-out-loud, as is an ineffectual priest’s imitation of frying bacon as he slip-slides away from an irksome marriage counseling assignment. The color of the sets underlines the living hell that is the marriage of Bette and Boo.
The beauty of the piece is that it gathers dimensionality throughout, rather than stay a series of sketches. The ten-person ensemble, including Heather Burns as Bette’s breakdown-prone sister and Terry Beaver in dual roles as the doctor and the priest, is terrific, poised on the knife-edge of comedy and tragedy. Korins’ panels, incisively lit by Donald Holder, are nimbly choreographed, and Susan Hilferty’s pleasant but unrelaxed and confining costumes add to the atmosphere of slow suffocation. There is no escaping this tightly wound production, in which everything works with clockwork precision. The Marriage of Bette and Boo plays through Sept. 7. –Robert Cashill