Taking a wry, absurdist view of life’s unfathomable cruelties is a specialty of Christopher Durang, but even by the playwright’s own standards, the characters in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” have little to laugh about. Since the play premiered at the Public Theater in 1985, the appetite for dark-hued irony has grown steadily, making themes like marital misery, family dysfunction, alcoholism, emotional instability, religion and death into standard fodder for comedy. So it’s all the more surprising that, whether in giddy or melancholy mode, the play remains sharp, funny and affecting more than 20 years later.
Ingeniously structured as 33 brief scenes that recount the union of the title over three decades — playing fast and loose with chronology, facts, memory and perspective — the black comedy requires an especially tight grasp on the reins. Making evident use of his experience with musicals, Walter Bobbie’s crisp-as-lettuce revival for Roundabout is choreographed with precision and vitality, with a cast thoroughly adept at the tightrope act of balancing tart humor with dour reality.
The material’s autobiographical nature was underlined in Jerry Zaks’ original production by having Durang play narrator Matt, a self-possessed young man growing up in the brooding shadow of an off-kilter Roman Catholic family. Charles Socarides steps affably into that role here, but even without the playwright on hand, the personal nature and heartfelt experience of his observations about love and family ripple like waves through the comedy’s bizarro world, breathing real-life emotional heft into both its sting and its sadness.
Matt’s extended clan is given a fittingly manic presentation. Stepping onto designer David Korins’ versatile playing space of endlessly reconfigured geometric frames, they beam for a family portrait while zipping through their singsong blessings of each other and newlyweds Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) and Boo (Christopher Evan Welch). The color palette of Donald Holder’s bold lighting runs from the rosy pink of a Valentine’s Day chocolate box to the fiery reds of hell, which pretty much sums up the volatility of life with this eccentric group — costumed by Susan Hilferty in 1950s wedding finery throughout.
Matt is the sole surviving child of Bette, a woman almost bursting with maternal instincts who during the course of the play gives birth to four stillborn babies, each of them dropped on the floor with pragmatic dispatch by the obstetrician (Terry Beaver). The resounding thud of that gesture is echoed in the family’s bewildered responses.
Bette’s controlling mother, Margaret (Victoria Clark), is tirelessly chipper but rarely has a sympathetic word behind her air of the perfect, smiling housewife; her father, Paul (Adam LeFevre), is virtually ignored, his heavy speech impediment making him impossible to understand; brittle sister Joan (Zoe Lister-Jones) is so jaded about her own lousy marriage she’s past caring; and third sibling Emily (Heather Burns) is a religious hysteric, too busy apologizing for imagined missteps to provide any real consolation.
The groom’s side is no better. Boo is fast following in the boozing footsteps of his arrogant father, Karl (John Glover), who chomps on a cigar while swilling cocktails and sneering about his dim-witted, quietly resentful wife, Soot (Julie Hagerty): “Soot is the dumbest white woman alive,” is a typical endearment.
And seeking solace in the church also proves a dead-end mission, a fact hilariously illustrated when Father Donnally (Beaver again, in priceless form) gathers the group for some unhelpful marital and spiritual advice. “I mumble platitudes to these people who come to me with these insoluble problems,” he moans. “And I think to myself, ‘Why didn’t they think before they got married?’ Why does no one ever think? Why did God make people stupid?”
Punctuating his guiding narration with considerations on Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and his favorite movies, Socarides’ Matt looks on with patient indulgence, mild disapproval and brave endurance as the audience is bounced like a pinball from one fraught family episode to the next, sharing in a nervous breakdown, a divorce, one sudden death and another slow and painful one. There’s also a catastrophic Thanksgiving and a tense Christmas that serve to illustrate Matt’s observation in an essay that holidays were invented by a sadistic 13th century Englishman to regulate the population into collective depression.
Bobbie’s spry direction weaves a fluid thread through the endless ricochet and erratic rhythms of conventional dialogue, direct address, musical snippets, academic asides and profoundly odd non sequiturs — rendered cohesive by the distinctive logic of Durang’s skewed worldview.
The entire cast is in sync with the writing, but Jennings Grant makes an especially deep impression. Her desperation as she continues to hope through each ill-fated pregnancy for a miracle; her blindness to the rewards of being a real mother to her emotionally isolated surviving son, rather than dreaming of children she can’t have; the wistfulness of naming her stillborn babies after A.A. Milne characters; her shrill, unhinged vigilance each time Boo takes a drink — wherever Bette’s wild mood swings take her, the performance is heartbreaking.
What’s most remarkable about the play is that despite the cartoonishness of his characters, Durang treats them as three-dimensional people, imbued as often with affection as horror. The balance of demented dark comedy with poignant insight here is both delicate and unexpected.
“I don’t think God punishes people for specific things,” reflects the writer through Matt. “I think he punishes people in general, for no reason.” In other hands, such lines might have the confronting ring of bitterness; here, they seem a sad-sweet acknowledgement of the sheer randomness of life.