THEATER REVIIEW
It’s not a play for the squeamish. But neither, perhaps, is marriage.

Christopher Durang’s absurdist comedy The Marriage of Bette and Boo, now 25 years old, plays like a montage of sketch comedy vignettes covering a bleak range of topics from alcoholism to psychosis, from cancer to stillborn babies. In 1985, long before such animation as South Park and Family Guy introduced us to hilariously dysfunctional characters on TV, Durang brought to the stage a black comedy of irony, farce and realism – the autobiographical rendering of his parents’ turbulent marriage.

Village Players’ production is smartly directed by Dan Taube and wonderfully acted. The large ensemble walks the tightrope between absurdity and reality with ease. We get glimpses of the pain and poignancy beneath broad, cartoonish sketch episodes.

The big scenes – holiday gatherings in which the two families collide – are especially well executed. There’s a catastrophic Thanksgiving scene in which a gravy boat gets dropped and someone tries to vacuum it up while everyone is yelling. Absurd, yes, but recognizably credible, too.

Verbal abuse and nervous breakdowns aren’t typically subjects for comedy. But since the ’70s, Durang has been known for confronting topics like child abuse, Roman Catholicism and homosexuality for comic purposes. Durang’s works usually spring from his real life and background.

This show depicts three decades of marital misery, covered in 33 brief scenes that illustrate the failure of church, family and relationships. The play spins from Bette and Boo’s wedding day, though the birth of their son, Bette’s ill-fated pregnancies, the couple’s divorce, and then Bette’s terminal illness. The story seems to begin in the 1950s, but it’s a far cry from sitcoms like Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Stephanie Sullivan exhibits great range as Bette. I saw Durang being interviewed on a talk show once and remember him explaining how terrified he was before his mom saw the play but that she surprisingly loved this character so closely based upon herself.

Ben Zisk is Boo (no one seems to know his real name), a confused, overgrown child who drinks himself into oblivion.

Bette’s father, played by Brian Nash, is a tongue-tied simpleton whose speech impediment renders him incapable of being understood. Yet he’s also one of the only characters who isn’t constantly arguing. Bette’s mom, played by Bev Coscarelli, is incessantly smiling and chipper, a queen of denial like some vapid ’50s sitcom housewife.

Bette’s one sister (Megan E. Brown) is a guilt-ridden religious hysteric who suffers a breakdown and is institutionalized; her other sister (Jordan Blythe), brittle and abrasive, has a disastrous marriage.

Boo’s arrogant, bullying boozer of a father (Robert Ertel) wonders why there are no bars serving drinks in hospitals. He refers to his wife, a clueless enabler called Soot (Kelli Walker) as “the dumbest white woman alive.” Walker plays her role as wonderfully dim-witted yet dignified.

Bette’s desire for a big Catholic family is ill-fated. She has an Rh factor problem in the era before such a condition was treatable. She has four consecutive stillbirths and she names each child after an A.A. Milne character. The four dead babies, by the way, are a running gag; every one is unceremoniously tossed to the floor by the obstetrician.

Boo quickly slides into alcoholism, mirroring his father’s behavior.

The events are narrated by Bette and Boo’s troubled son Skippy (Matt Dyson), a role originally portrayed by playwright Durang, who escorts us through the chronological flashbacks depicting his parents’ ill-fated marriage, including sidetrips exhibiting his extended family’s neuroses. He remains detached, sorting though his past and withdrawing into the 19th century novels of Thomas Hardy. None of the folks Skippy knows ever really connect with him, leaving him to pick through the broken shards of glass for meaning and warmth. All this is often truly funny. But it’s also pretty bleak and, at times, tedious.

At a Catholic marriage counseling session, the quirky moderating priest (Dennis Schnell) takes a break from dishing out platitudes to impersonate a strip of bacon frying in a skillet. “I don’t think God punishes people for specific things,” he says later. “I think he punishes people in general, for no reason.” He even wonders aloud: “Why did God make people so stupid?”

The bare stage is equipped with several risers. There are three large panels decorated with geometric colored squares that make the background look both like stained glass in a church or cubism from a painting by Mondrian. Annette Vargas designed the set. Assorted pieces of furniture are carried on and off as needed.

Mark LeBeau is the musical director. Ricky Lurie designed the costumes. Jennifer Bethmann is stage manager.

This biting portrait of a marriage gone wrong seems a tad elongated in a few sequences, but the first-rate performances and tight direction do provide an absurdist view of life’s cruelties that will leave you thinking. The existential message will not appeal to everyone. But this production offers much food for thought and fodder for discussion if you attend The Marriage of Bette and Boo with someone who likes to talk on the way home.

This is the final show in Village Players’ series of New American Classics.

Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher and school librarian who, when not reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.

The Marriage of Bette and Boo

  • 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday
  • 3 p.m. Sunday, until June 27
  • Village Players Performing Arts Center
  • 1010 Madison, Oak Park
  • $20-25
  • 866-764-1010

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...