Arts and Entertainment

The challenging comedy of Bette and Boo

By Taylor Coe ’13

April 25, 2013

This play demands a very particular kind of audience.

Christopher Durang’s bitterly funny comedy requires an audience that can not only sit through two hours of an American family falling apart, but laugh at the whole affair. Durang clearly mined his personal life for source material, so the approach can come off like humor-as-medicine…  except that the medicine is that vile, cherry-flavored variety. In other words, you must be brave to laugh at this stuff.

Framed as a memory play, the story is narrated by Matt (Peter Bresnan ’15), the disillusioned son of the titular Bette and Boo. The play alternates between narration from Matt and vignette-style scenes (often teetering towards the absurd) depicting various moments in the family’s history, mostly the tumultuous relationship between Matt’s parents. Bresnan is solid and comfortable in the role of Matt, although he lacks some of the comic flair needed to elevate Matt’s monologues out of what becomes a narrative slog at points.

Most of the humor comes from the (mostly) uncomfortable, remembered scenes of family life. Depending on who you are and how much medicine you can take, the play’s particular brand of poison kicks in somewhere between when Karl (Nicolas Keller Sarmiento ’13) first opens his mouth and when Bette (Alex Dorer ’13) ends her first wistful monologue, during which she brings up pregnancy for the first time.

In fact, the pregnancy humor gets so dark so quickly that the string of stillborn infants scattered throughout the play generated some of the biggest laughs. The exact method of the repeated gag is so unpleasantly funny that you find yourself somewhere between a laugh and a gasp, struggling to figure out the best possible reaction. And, of course, there isn’t one.

Other moments in the play follow a similar template, not unlike those bits in a stand-up set when a comic says something designed more as a challenge to the audience than a joke. Too racist? Too sexist? Too soon? The play demands an audience that does not care, an audience that has tossed all considerations of political correctness—what sometimes even seems like a basic sense of human decency—to the wind.

Dorer is the star of the show, doing an excellent job translating Bette’s fragmented mind. Always reaching out to the world for affirmation, the challenge in playing Bette is the constant tiptoeing between tragedy and humor, and shifting suddenly, almost violently, back and forth between the two modes. Dorer manages that delicate task, especially in her sad, silly telephone conversations.

Playing Boo, Brian Evans ’15 is given comparatively less to work with (a large part of his time onstage is spent disconsolate and drunk). As hard as it might be to pick out a high point in the play, an argument between Bette and Boo involving gravy, a rug and a vacuum pushes this family circus of horrors into a new realm of hilarity.

The play’s strength comes also from the strong support of the smaller, secondary roles. The relationship between Karl (Keller Sarmiento ’13) and Soot (Lizzie Buchanan ’15) is funny, awful and, ultimately, sort of sweet in a way that feels at once unnatural yet entirely relatable. The performance of Wynn Van Dusen ’15 as innocent, embattled Emily is also wonderfully done; she gives Emily just the right touch, especially in her redemptive final scene. And, of course, Michael Breslin ’13 aces the double role of Father Donnelly/Doctor, particularly his fury at his position and his imitation of frying bacon as Father Donnelly.

None of this is to forget sophomore Shea Crockett’s masterful, nigh-wordless turn as Paul, the stroke victim suffering mostly in silence, but also partly in incomprehensible speech. The random strings of vowels unleashed by Crockett secured some of the performance’s best laughs.

Unlike the past two semesters, the main stage play skews toward simplicity in its set and costuming. The stage is in what I am tempted to call its regular place (does Minor ever really lend to regularity?) and the props are limited to chairs, tables and a few other assorted objects, including poor Emily’s cello. The most complex part of the set is the three panels hanging over the stage, onto which images related to the scene—photographs, movie posters, cartoons—are projected.

The panels, in fact, prove the least successful element of the play. It brought to mind the dilemma of eating while watching a movie: Enjoying that forkful of spaghetti? Too bad! You just missed an epic one-liner! So while maybe there exists a cool ‘intertextual’ argument for the images, they remain mostly a cute and distracting affectation, a gesture towards the sort of theatrical complexity that the play does not need.

That said, there are lots of theatrical pretensions that this production wisely does not indulge in; meaning, I suppose, that the elements of the play all feel just about right—right down to the cello that Emily neurotically boosts around with her and Paul’s “separated” pencil. There are lots of little moments and big emotions to admire—so long as you can be the audience that the play demands.

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