REVIEW: The Marriage of Bette and Boo (Village Players)

A reverent treatment of Durang’s classic American play

 

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Village Players Theater presents
 
The Marriage of Bette and Boo
 
by Christopher Durang
Directed by
Dan Taube
at
Village Players Theater, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through June 27  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Oak Park’s Village Players Theater is closing out it’s season of “New American Classics” with The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Christopher Durang’s 1985 tragicomedy about a son reliving the painful memories of his parents marriage. Known for being a personal and autobiographical work, The Marriage of Bette and Boo is so popular for it’s sharp black humor and piercingly intense characters that it’s  become almost cliché. It’s the source of the “lost babies” monologue, a piece so rich with nuance, depth and wit that it’s made its way onto “do not use” list of many acting classes because of overuse.

DSC01487It’s no wonder that actors are drawn to Durang’s work. Bette and Boo has amazing characters, from Emily, the neurotic aunt who is full of self loathing and eagerness to apologize for transgressions she hasn’t committed – played by funny and energetic Megan E. Brown, to the hilariously contemptible priest, who’s just so over having to help his stupid parishioners (Dennis Schnell, whose priest monologue is a show stopper, on the night I saw him it received applause).

With a talented cast and a winning play, there was little director Dan Taube could have done to mess this production up and in fact, he enhanced it. Taube brings out the sadness in this work, lifting the veil of levity in every scene. Although it is a fast passed play, Taube does not shy away from taking time when it is needed to shine a spotlight on an emotional moment. Dan Taube’s direction is the invisible kind: one doesn’t really notice any direction at all, only the story that he has facilitated.

25 years after it was written, The Marriage of Bette and Boo is still a challenging piece of theater. The manic style in which it is written, and the darkness of its subject matter, make it at times difficult to watch. It also feels, well, dated. In 2010 it is no longer en vogue to deliver highly academic, sardonically funny monologues about how much one hates one’s parents (unfortunately). Stephanie Sullivan is an unsympathetic Bette, leaving one to feel that this play might just be a two-and-a-half hour long complaint about Christopher Durang’s mother. Sullivan is a strong actress, and when she is able to find moments of humanity in Bette, they are poignant and lovely (most notably in the aforementioned “lost babies” monologue) but the character – a mother who relentlessly demands to be impregnated, only to drag her family through hell with still births again and again – is as hard for the audience to love as it is for her narrating son.

Modern audiences might feel as if they are watching a very 1980’s dramady with this production, which is extremely well done but does little to innovate or modernize this “new American classic.” Most notably, the set, designed by Annette Vargas, has a super 1980’s feel. Three tall panels are designed with a brightly-colored square pattern that looks like neon stained glass. It’s pretty, and old fashioned looking, and yet somehow it works.

This Village Player’s stuck-in-the-past production is fitting – how for a play about remorse, loss and memory. How something like The Marriage of Bette and Boo could be contemporized would be a challenge. The play seems destined to stay in the 1980’s, to remain a living monument to the year of its creation. Whether or not Dan Taube is correct when he says, “One day people will look at Durang’s body of work and the innovation and the vision and put him in a class with American masters like O’Neill and Williams,” this production, presented with the loyalty and reverence of a period piece, surely supports that hypothesis.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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REVIEW: Lost in Yonkers (Village Players)

Two brothers zing Simon’s show

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Village Players Theater presents:

Lost in Yonkers

 

Written by Neil Simon
Directed by
Brian Rabinowitz
Thru February 21st (more info)

By Katy Walsh

Living on top of a candy store is every kid’s dream – unless the shop is owned by a tyrannical grandmother! yonkers2Set in the early 1940’s, Neil Simon’s Purlitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play is a coming-of-age story about two teenagers forced to live with their cruel grandma for a year. When financial complications require their father to take a job on the road, Arty and Jay leave the Bronx for Yonkers. Sleeping on the pull-out couch, the boys live in the 2 bedroom dictator world with their grandma as supreme leader. Making family life a little more pleasant and weirder, they get to know their crazy Aunt Bella, con artist Uncle Eddie and strange Aunt Gert. Playwright Neil Simon is the master for portraying family dysfunction in a comical manner, and in Lost in Yonkers, the two young boys’ antics lead family members to face their past destructive patterns.

Under the direction of Brian Rabinowitz, Andrew Raia (Jay) and Jake Walczyk (Arty) are fantastic as the brothers. Their onstage chemistry makes the relationship bond seem real. Raia’s Bronx accent is the best in the cast. Whether his sulking on the couch or challenging his grandma, his timing is authentic and flawless. Walczyk’s delivers some of Simon’s best zingers. The comedy is heightened for extra laughs from this pint size messenger with a big attitude. As Grandma, Deanna Norman’s presence alone on stage is disapproving and threatening. Add in the character’s severe child raising practices, Norman makes anyone squirm in their seat.

yonkersThe most demanding part in the show is the role of Bella. A woman incapacitated by mental illness and her mother’s hold, the role requires a combination of child-like innocence, a woman’s romantic desires, and neurotic outbursts. Stephanie Ganacolpos does a fine, but not consistent, job of hitting all these elements sporadically throughout the show.

Designed by Annette Vargas, the set is that of an apartment in Yonkers that’s seen better years. In the first scene, the audience learns how particular grandma is about the doilies on the couch – with this realization, however, the sloppy wallpaper seems a little too imperfect for grandma’s home. Bella’s wardrobe also malfunctions after grandma throws a cup of tea on her. The tea results in Bella displaying distracting wet stains on her cotton dress in the next scene. The costumes by Emma Weber add a layer of understanding of the time period, especially Arty’s short pants. Under Weber’s guidance suits, ties, and dresses rule the day – there are no casual comforts. It’s hard to imagine today’s teenage boys wearing suits and ties in an un-air conditioned apartment.

Although taking place more than a half of century ago, Lost in Yonkers has timeless themes of family dynamics, teenage rebellion, and financial struggles. It’s a perfect show to escape and compare family war wounds. If nothing else, go to see the beginnings of the brilliant stage careers of Andrew Raia and Jake Walczyk.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: side project’s “Rewind

‘Rewind’: exquisite production, downer play

 

Prod - Noah, Jim, Elisha, Scaff - couch 3

The side project theatre company presents:

Rewind

By Laura Eason
Directed by Anna C. Bahow
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were the next big thing in rock. But Noah walked away. Elisha married that asshole. And now Jim’s dead — leaving them all to wonder — ‘How did we get here?'”

Prod - Noah, Jim and Elisha - couch That spoiler comes straight out of promotions for Rewind, up-and-coming Chicago playwright Laura Eason’s new play, now in world-premiere by the side project, in Rogers Park, so I’m not giving anything away. The trouble with plays that start at the end is that they tend to lack suspense.

While the flashback can be an effective theatrical technique to fill audiences in on the back story, it can go too far. This play doesn’t flashback so much as reverse crawl.

Partly inspired by the playwright’s own experiences in Chicago’s indie music scene and influenced by the 1996 suicide of Jim Ellison, front man for the Chicago power pop trio Material Issue, Rewind begins in 1998, when the members of his onetime band, childhood friend Noah and ex-lover Elisha, find the body of Jim, a talented but troubled and unsuccessful songwriter and musician. Then the drama steps back — rewinds, get it? — through the threesome’s life to the band’s beginnings in 1981.

We wait for some startling revelation or inspiring moment, but none appear. What we get is an old, old story — familiar to anyone who knows anything about the music business: Talent is not enough; you also need perseverance, responsibility, belief in yourself and a good deal of luck.

As the play progresses backwards, we see the band’s deteriorating relationships; Jim’s insecurity over whether his music is really good enough; issues of personal loyalty vs. business expediency; troubles with their record label; their opportunistic manager; the bitter contrast of a younger musician achieving the success that’s eluded them; and, finally, their hopeful start. The depressing history of a million failed garage bands.

Prod - Noah, Jim and Ray - couch 2

Side project presents the play in its typically flawless way — perhaps unintentionally reinforcing the theme: Fine acting, an effective set and excellent staging and direction aren’t enough, either.

Chip Davis is suitably intense as Jim, and Zach Buell nicely expressive as his always-supportive pal, Noah. Cyd Blakewell plays the somewhat selfish Elisha with just the right blend of innocence and self-interest. Supporting actors Shane Kenyon and Brett Schneider do good work as well.

Sound Designer Misha Fiksel hunted out local music from the period (a pity it’s only used incidentally). Set Designer Annette Vargas dappled the 30-seat theater with bright spray-paint graffiti and hung the walls with colorful band posters from Chicago print house Screwball Press that list all local indie music spots of the period: Lounge Ax, Double Door, the Empty Bottle, the Aragon Ballroom.

The audience sits on two sides of the intimate stage, where Director Anna C. Bahow makes adept use of the few stage furnishings to convey 17 different scenes. She moves her cast in and out with exquisite pacing.

Yet although Rewind is performed without intermission in just 90 minutes, its utter predictability makes it seem much longer.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Note: Allow time to find street parking.