Miracle Workers: Masquers Playhouse’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”

Love and Marriage: From left, Paul (David Weiner), Bette (Michelle Pond), Joan (Anne Collins), and Margaret (Ellen Brooks). Photo: Adam Telfer.

Christopher Durang’s 1985 play The Marriage of Bette and Boo deserves to be considered a classic of American theater, yet many people have never heard of it, let alone seen it.  Even folks who love Durang’s other work are likely not to have encountered it, or having encountered it, are likely not to comprehend it. This is somewhat understandable given its surprising tonal shifts from comedy to tragedy, its comic non sequitor dialog, and the highly stylized portrayals of the extended family of the show’s narrator, Matt “Skippy” Hudlocke.  (In my first encounter with the play, reading the script, I didn’t much understand it myself.) Frank Rich’s respectful but ultimately negative review of the original New York production, in which Durang himself portrayed Matt, compared the show to The Glass Menagerie, mainly due to its autobiographical nature and the narrator/son being the playwright’s alter ego.  I’ve seen a videotape of that original New York production with its amazing cast—in addition to Durang, it starred Joan Allen, Mercedes Ruehl, Olympia Dukakis, and Richard B. Shull—and it’s clear that Rich missed how the comedy and the sorrow work together, how the broad strokes with which the characters are at first painted coalesce into a vivid reality, and that what Durang achieved was nothing less than an absurdist Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  This thinly disguised portrait of Durang’s own dysfunctional family, troubled by unhappy marriages, alcoholism, and broken dreams, looking to the insufficient, even deleterious, balm of Catholicism to ease their pain, is an uproariously funny, profoundly moving, and achingly beautiful act of both compassion and forgiveness.

So someone please tell me what the hell a small amateur community theater in sleepy little Point Richmond is doing putting on this play? What, pray tell, is The Marriage of Bette and Boo doing in a season that features such crowd-pleasers as The Musical of Musicals, The Hot Mikado, and The Mystery of Irma Vep?  And how could it possibly be any good?

The Masquers Playhouse production, despite its tiny budget, its amateur actors, its rough edges, is, unbelievably, astonishing.  This can be largely credited to the skill and love lavished on the show by its two directors, Peter Budinger, who also portrays Matt, and DC Scarpelli.  Budinger and Scarpelli fell in love with the show as undergraduates at Yale and somehow convinced the Masquers to take a risk that very few would.  Bette and Boo will be puzzling to many and offensive to some, qualities that most community theaters go out of their way to avoid.

Matt, called Skippy by his mother after her favorite Jackie Cooper movie, narrates the story of his devout Catholic family: his mother Bette (Michelle Pond), desperately trying to have another child but suffering stillbirth after stillbirth; his father Boo (Craig Eychner) turning to drink as a respite from the horrors of his marriage and each failed birth, paternal grandmother Soot (Nancy Sale) who nods and smiles as her husband Karl (Jerry Telfer) mocks and insults her; maternal grandmother Margaret (Ellen Brooks) who strides confidently through the chaos around her as if unaware of the miseries of her life, which include a husband who makes noise but can’t speak (David Weiner) and two other daughters besides Bette: Joan (Anne Collins) trapped in a miserable marriage of her own, and the sweet and awkward Emily (Vicki Zabarte), who has so subsumed the lessons of Catholicism that she’s crushed by her own sense of guilt.  (She apologizes for everything, even her own existence, going so far as to prepare apologies in advance, for future wrongs.)

The show does start out on slightly rocky footing.  The timing of the comic bits doesn’t always work as it should, and cues aren’t always picked up as quickly as they could be.  Not all of the actors have sufficient technique and training to carry off Durang’s unique absurdist style, but the production begins to settle into its own rhythms, and the amateurish quality of some of the acting, incredibly, begins to work.  In using people who aren’t professional actors (though many in the cast have extensive credits), people who look like normal people, people who are normal people, you stop seeing actors on the stage, and you begin to see the folks you know: You see your neighbors, you see your family.  It also helps that as the two title characters, Michelle Pond and Craig Eychner are better than anyone has a right to expect.  Pond’s Bette chatters breezily and voluminously as she repeatedly tries to give her life purpose by giving birth to more babies, all of them, save Matt, stillborn.  Craig’s Boo suffers stoically, turning to drink for some small release from his unbearable life, and begging Bette to stop trying to have another child.  His Boo dies a little more with each new stillborn birth.  When he finally breaks down, it’s almost unbearable, like the first time you saw your own father cry.

Budinger gives a very smart performance as the observant, perceptive Matt.  When playing the child Matt, he simply sits on the floor, and watches the peculiar unhappy adults around him.  He doesn’t change his voice or adopt any childish mannerisms and you accept him as the 10-year-old Matt completely.  You see the direct connection between the bewildered 10-year-old and the bewildered adult.  When his mother asks the now-grown Matt if he thinks God is punishing her, he responds, ”I don’t believe that God punishes people for specific things.  He punishes people in general… for no reason,” probably the most succinct statement of absurdist philosophy ever written. As Matt, Budinger puzzles out the drives and desires that lead the adults around him to grief and despair, watching but never condemning.

As Matt’s paternal grandparent’s, Telfer’s Karl drinks and insults his wife, accusing her of “not saying one sensible word in thirty years of marriage,” while Sale’s Soot (the origin of the nickname is a running gag) grins and laughs, trying to pass off his remarks as being all in fun. Telfer and Soot look like someone’s grandparents, and though it’s sometimes hard to hear Telfer’s foggy growl of a voice, you believe that this couple stays locked in their unhappiness because they can’t conceive of anything better.

On the distaff side, Brooks is a marvel as Bette’s mother.  Margaret is in some essential way immune to the suffering of others, even confessing to us that she’s glad of her adult children’s failures because it keeps them at home with her.  That her husband makes incoherent noises (possibly due to a stroke, but never really explained) and literally can’t communicate (in a family where even those who speak clearly still can’t make themselves heard) isn’t really a burden to her.  She’s found her way through life and doesn’t need anyone challenging her near-pathological approach.  But Brooks also makes Margaret charming, probably the only one of the four grandparents that you could actually stand to spend time with in real life, and it’s clear that her self-assuredness and self-deception is what allows her to survive. In one of the final scenes, she receives her life’s awful reward of senility, and Brooks makes your heart break for Margaret as well.  Weiner and Collins are used extremely well, and Robert Love in the dual roles of the priest and the doctor—the two external authority figures that reign over Bette and Boo’s lives, one sacred and one secular, both of no use whatsoever—has some very funny moments.  As the priest conducting a marriage counseling session, he flops on the floor and imitates a piece of bacon sizzling.  (It’s as helpful as anything else the priest does.)

As the ever guilty, ever responsible Emily, Vicki Zabarte is probably the least experienced actress on the stage. But under the directors’ gentle guidance, her own apparent sweetness and gentleness become Emily’s traits.  She’s the family’s holy fool, giving up her own life to minister to them, convinced that other’s woes are brought on by her own spiritual lapses: she hasn’t prayed hard enough or often enough.  Zabarte eventually makes Emily’s devotion as unbearably tender as it is ineffectual.

In conceiving this production, Scarpelli and Budinger use enlarged old-style snapshot borders, scalloped by pinking shears, cornered by those old gummed picture holders found in many a family album, as the primary scenic elements.  Sometimes they exist as empty frames that surround the characters, and at other times, they are filled with a two-dimensional background that defines the setting. It works brilliantly.  Durang’s play has 22 scenes in its two acts, most of them short and quick—figurative snapshots. The directors also handle the play’s crazy, mixed-up chronology with extreme lucidity.  You’re never confused about where you are in these characters’ stories despite Durang’s purposeful hopping around in time.

But it’s difficult to know whether to shower more praise on the directors’ deep understanding of this play or on their amazing work with the actors. Durang’s miraculous script uses humor and compassion to tinge the miseries of his characters’ lives with beauty.  Budinger and Scarpelli have done the same in this miraculous staging.  You may see a better and more skilled production of this play. You’re not likely to see a more heartfelt one.

Death and Sorrow: Soot (Nancy Sale) comforts Boo (Craig Eychner)

The Marriage of Bette and Boo plays through April 30, at the Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond.  For tickets and other information, call 510-232-4031 or go to http://www.masquers.org.

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Beastliness: “La Bête” Gives Broadway Another Try

Mark Rylance as Valere gives beastliness a good name.

About a decade ago I reviewed David Hirson’s play Wrong Mountain at ACT, a poison-pen letter to the theatre as popular art. Throughout the play, Hirson sneered at the notion of connecting with an audience, and I grew more and more enraged as I watched it. Why was Hirson even writing plays if he detested audiences so?

Wrong Mountain did make me curious about Hirson’s first production, La Bête, as Wrong Mountain seemed to be a response to the earlier play’s reception. Produced on Broadway in 1991, it was savaged by Frank Rich in the New York Times, spawning an open letter of protest by several notables of theater, including Katherine Hepburn. The play closed after 25 performances but went on to become a success in London.

Almost twenty years later, the play is being revived on Broadway in a new production directed by the brilliant Matthew Warchus, responsible for the recent hits The Norman Conquests and God of Carnage. He brings along a spectacular cast, especially the stupendous Mark Rylance as the title character, Valere, a successful provincial clown performer who has captured the imagination of the Princess (Joanna Lumley, successfully cast in a role that was originally for a male), who wants to add him to the acting troupe she patronizes. The troupe is led by Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), a high-minded intellectual. La Bête is set in 1654 France, and is written in rhymed iambic pentameter couplets à la Molière. (Elomire is of course an anagram for Molière.)

Although Rich was certainly right about the plays shortcomings, he appears to have underestimated its successes, which may be partly due to the role of Valere apparently being beyond the skills of its 1991 player, Tom McGowan.

There is no such problem with Rylance, who brings some unholy combination of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, Martin Short’s Ed Grimley from Saturday Night Live, and Shakespearean clown to the role, and he’s astounding. The role contains a 25-minute monologue (again, in rhymed couplets!) where Valere drunkenly pontificates, expounds, farts, spits, and belches, and exhibits the most deluded self-love ever seen on stage. His immediate audience for this display is Elomire and his lead actor Bejart (Stephen Ouimette). No one does outraged dignity better than David Hyde Pierce, and the succession of slow burns, shocked gasps, and unfeigned horror at the bombastic vulgarities of Valere are virtuosic, exquisitely timed, and hilarious. Ouimette, too, is terrific as he alternates between shock at Valere and preventing Elomire from doing bodily harm to the Princess’s new favorite. Lumley gets a fantastic entrance courtesy of Warchus, as a gale of glitter blows in from offstage, and she’s great at regal hauteur.

The contemporary verse plays I’ve seen (not that many, thank god) have been disasters, and for the first hour or so, I thought La Bête would be an exception. Hirson’s verse is natural and unfussy, often approaching the ease and wit of Richard Wilbur’s famed translations of Molière. In the midst of Valere’s monologue, he’s taken with an epigram he’s just crafted, but as he’s searching for pen and paper to record the (rather witless) witticism, he forgets what he just said and screams: “COME BACK! COME BACK, YOU TANTALIZING GEM!/YOU TEASE! YOU BITCH! YOU FICKLE APOTHEGM!/ I GAVE YOU LIFE AND NOW YOU FLY FROM ME!!/ This happens with annoying frequency.”

The problem with the play is the second act (Warchus presents both acts without intermission), where, once again, Hirson gets preachy about theater, basically excoriating the audience for enjoying the first act. At the command of the Princess (and the sly suggestion of Elomire), Valere is forced to present one of his performances employing the actors in Elomire’s troupe as a test of whether the merger of their two talents will prove fruitful. What follows is a slapdash Brechtian skit entitled “The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz.” The presentation isn’t especially entertaining on any level, and its moral, as the Princess puts it, is that “…mediocrity is bound to thrive,/ while excellence must struggle to survive.” Elomire, in his turn, derides Valere and his play as representing the mediocrity they pretend to oppose. Elomire’s speechifying offends the Princess who forces him to resign from his own troupe. Hirson thinks he’s presenting both sides of the argument, but Elomire is utterly defeated, a martyr to excellence, while Valere is triumphant, and it’s clear where Hirson stands. It’s much better to perform to an empty theater and maintain your principles than it is to engage with middlebrow tastes and intellects. Hirson is effectively flipping the bird to his own audience.

Hirson’s obvious skill and intellect appear to be at war with his chosen profession of playwright, and it once again begs the question: Why is he writing plays? Luckily, Warchus, Rylance, Pierce, Ouimette, and Lumley have no such animosities, and you’re left admiring the brilliant performances and Hirson’s talents, doing your best to overlook his hostile analysis of contemporary theater and audiences.

Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) and Bejart (Stephen Ouimette) contemplate the horror that is Valere.

La Bête plays until January 9, 2011 at the Music Box Theater in New York. For more information, go to www.labetetheplay.com.