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: Jerry and Tom (Idle Muse Theatre)

Searing thriller or side-splitting farce?  Who knows.

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Idle Muse Theatre Company presents:

 

Jerry and Tom

By Rick Cleveland
Directed by Lenny Wahlberg
At the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.
Through March 21st
(more info)

Reviewed by Ian Epstein 

It’s unclear what brought Jerry (Matt Dyson) and Tom (Brad Woodward) together.  It’s unclear why they’re both in the line of work that they’re in.  It’s unclear who the man with the black bag over his head with his hands bound behind his back, sitting in the spotlight, is (though the role of corpse-recurrent is played by Brian Bengston). 

JT4 But it is clear what will happen to the man in the black bag when the phone rings and it is clear that Tom has done this many times before–has answered the phone, has green-lighted close quarters death by buckshot – even if Jerry, wielding the weapon like an amateur with a baton in a parade, is the one playing our trigger-prone young hot shot. And what is the natural response of our corpse-in-waiting to impending assassination? Tell bad animal jokes.

As the rest of the play unfolds in multiple vignettes spanning years of training and development as a team, it becomes clear that Jerry and Tom are hitmen.  They’re not your thrilling, glamorous, Hollywood hitmen living life bruised and wandering the world over with forged identities or double-O assignments. And they’ve got no clear relationship to the comedic cat-and-mouse duo Tom and Jerry.  Nope. These are just your everyday hitmen, with kids and wives and all the burdens of regular life tucked away offstage and only occasionally discussed in the long spells of waiting to kill-off targets of indeterminate importance for a clandestine, potentially criminal organization with unknown leadership.

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Lenny Wahlberg‘s directing would benefit from tidier, tighter transitions, although good blues in the dark does provide some enjoyment to audience members stranded in it.  Rick Cleveland‘s script overflows with crude situational jokes and it’s never clear whether the show is supposed to be taken seriously or comedically, as it lacks the high-stakes pacing, poetry or strong choice direction to support being a drama and accomplishing both.  Though the program explains the duration of time between scenes, they unfold so similarly that there’s no apparent logic that justifies the jumps in time and the play feels instead like a linear litany of melodramatic death after death after death.  If Idle Muse Theatre’s Jerry and Tom was trying for a searing, seat-gripping, anxious thriller (like Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth), it didn’t succeed.  If Jerry and Tom was trying for a side-splitting Chaplin-esque romp where the same character dies again and again and again and can’t seem to escape death, it came closer but ultimately failed to elevate the stakes high enough to become that kind of farce.  In the end, we’re just annoyingly disinterested.

 

Rating:

 

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Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors. Thursday nights are industry nights. $5 ticket with headshot/resume.  Running Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:PM, Sunday matinee at 3PM, through March 21.

Cast: Jerry – Matt Dyson, Tom – Brad Woodard, and Billy, Karl, Vic, etc. – Brian Bengston.

Design Team: Lighting Design: Steven Hill, Fight Choreography: Greg Poljacik