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THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO

Apple Tree Theatre

Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo is a nasty little comic masterpiece pointed at the heart of the ideal American family. Injustice and small cruelties abound in the world of Bette, Boo, and their extended families. Marriage is a mine field of miscommunication, family holidays are vicious affairs, and stillborn babies are a running gag.

The babies belong to Bette and Boo (Kathy Santen and Sean Grennan), who have little success producing live children after their first, a boy named Matt, is born. Bette is obsessed with having a large brood, all of whom she will name after the characters from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh series. As failed pregnancy follows failed pregnancy, Boo retreats into alcoholism and the marriage begins to disintegrate. God, church, and family fall far short of expectations. In spite of Bette's prayers, God does not come through with a miracle for her. Her mother (Margaret Ingraham) refuses to address her children's problems--she prefers them unhappy and living at home with her. Her father (Don Blair) seems compassionate, but no one can understand a word of the gibberish he speaks. However, Boo's father (J. Patrick McCormack) speaks very well. A smooth sadist who uses his words brutally, he offers to "christen the next stillborn" and pours a glass of Scotch into Bette's lap. His obsequious wife (Barbara Simpson) fends off his verbal abuse with a habitual nervous twitter. The parish priest (Marc Silvia) offers nothing in the way of solace or advice and wonders "why God made people stupid."

This play can come off as more an ugly bundle of woes than a comedy, but it works well when it's done with savagery. Durang's characters are fun-house-mirror reflections, absurd and exaggerated yet perfectly recognizable. He magnifies not only the inanities of human behavior but also the pain behind them, so that if the script is served well we will wince as we laugh. The Apple Tree Theatre production started out with an unsteady sweetness that fooled me into thinking this would be yet another Durang production that missed the point. But it turned out to be a terrific tactic, putting the audience in position for a sucker punch.

The company and director Mark Lococo are to be congratulated for resisting the temptation to whitewash Durang for the benefit of their subscribers--Apple Tree is located in a shopping mall in Highland Park, where people may be a little more sensitive about satire aimed at families. Several people at the Saturday-night performance I attended headed straight for the door after the first act, including a few families and a flock of ladies in spring dresses who left the third row conspicuously empty when the lights went down.

But they missed the delicious, heartbreaking second act. They missed Don Blair's wonderfully understated heart attack and Matt's conversation with his grandparents, one senile, one surly, two dead. They didn't see the emptiness in Boo's eyes when he gazed at his final stillborn child and pleaded with Bette to give up trying to have children, complaining mournfully, "They get you up in the middle of the night, dead." The teenagers didn't hear the sage advice of Father Donnally regarding marriage: "For God's sake, if you're going to get married, pay attention to what you're doing, have conversations with the person." They passed up more of Kathy Santen's breathless, compelling performance, J. Patrick McCormack's cruel precision, and Marc Silvia's terrific bit of silliness as a priest impersonating a strip of frying bacon.

Yes, dead babies are tossed around the stage in a rather irreverent manner. But if you can get past this image (after all, the babies aren't real) and laugh at the absurdities Durang presents, you might appreciate the holes he pokes in the fairy tale of family life.

BABY WITH THE BATHWATER

Cram Productions
at Centre East Studio Theatre

In Baby With the Bathwater, another Durang satire about dysfunctional families, a young man named Daisy struggles to come to terms with his ludicrous upbringing. When his therapist says he's going out of town and there will be no session the next week, Daisy threatens to do violence to himself.

"You're trying to manipulate me," the therapist warns him.

"Yes," Daisy agrees. "But I mean well."

The same could be said of Cram Productions' play at Centre East, in what was clearly once a high school music room and is now called the Studio Theatre. It might be difficult for any production to overcome the air of amateurishness that hangs about the room, but this play didn't have a chance.

The story of a child brought up by parents who are too insane and inconsistent to verify what sex it is, what its needs are, or how to keep it from running head on into speeding buses, Baby With the Bathwater needs to be played fast and furiously, with very little time spent on introspection. These are not introspective people; they down Quaaludes and NyQuil and keep their child in the clothes hamper. Who would think of playing it realistically?

Yet Cram Productions takes Durang's nightmare vision of a vulnerable child at face value--and serves up the blandest dish imaginable. The performances are slow, hard to hear (except when the actors are screeching), and achingly amateur. The one exception is Paul Mougey as the adult Daisy; he alone shows confidence and some stage presence. If director Larry Paullin has any sort of plan behind his staging, it's not evident.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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