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: Village Players’ “You Can’t Take It With You”

You Can't Take It With You

 Village Players Theater presents

You Can’t Take It With You

by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
directed by Jack Hickey
runs through Nov. 22 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

take-it-with-you During hard times, people seek the warmth of the well-known, the solace of childhood memory and happier days. In dining, that means comfort food. The stage equivalent — comfort theater, if you will — arises in low-risk revivals.

So, this season has seen Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre, a revival of a 1928 Marx Brothers comedy.  Porchlight Theatre did The Fantasticks, that long-running off-Broadway favorite. Marriott Theatre revived Hairspray, a 2002 Broadway hit based on a 1988 cult film set in 1962. And so on.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart‘s quirky You Can’t Take It With You needs no economic crisis to be worth a remount. Although this 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner certainly shows its origins in the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It With You is one of the funniest and most endearing plays of the 20th century. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson called the original production "tickling fun," and so it remains.

Everyone should know this play. If you’ve never seen it, take advantage of Village Players‘ fine production in Oak Park.

A little acquaintance with 1930s popular history will enrich your experience, but it’s by no means required. Some understanding of the times in which the play was written may be needed to surmount 21st-century sensibilities, though for its period, You Can’t Take It With You seems quite progressive.

The farce follows the eccentric Sycamore family. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Paul Tinsley), the retired patriarch, has spent 35 years going to college commencements, collecting snakes and avoiding income tax.

His daughter, Penelope (Judith Laughlin), has spent the past eight years engaged in writing never-finished plays. Penny’s husband, Paul Sycamore (Errol McLendon), manufactures fireworks in the basement with help from the family’s lodger, Mr. DePinna (Eric Cowgill). Housekeeper Rheba (Elana Elyce), serves up dinners of corn flakes, watermelon and mystery meat and entertains her unemployed boyfriend, Donald (Ronaldo Coxon), overnight.

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Granddaughter Essie (Zoe Palko) makes candies for sale but spends every spare moment practicing, unsuccessfully, to be a ballerina. As her boisterous Russian dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov (Jeff McVann), puts it, "She stinks." Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael (Josh Wintersteen), prints up unlikely circulars on a hobby letterpress and plays the xylophone.

The most conventional member of the clan, granddaughter Alice (Jhenai Mootz), a secretary, is in love with her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Bryan Wakefield), though she fears her beloved but trying family won’t pass muster with his stuffy, Wall Street father (James Turano) and snobbish socialite mother (Katherine Keberlein). Also drifting through the scenes are an irritated IRS investigator (Michael M. Jones), a couple of G-men (Jones and Anthony Collaro), a drunken actress and the Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Courtney Boxwell).

They don’t write plays like this one anymore.

Village Players’ whole cast and crew merit kudos for this nicely presented ensemble piece. Director Jack Hickey paces his actors well, keeping things moving and the comedy coming. As Grandpa, Tinsley is perhaps overly laconic, but Laughlin does an especially sweet job as Penny, and Palko is wonderfully zany as Essie. Coxon offers some rare comic turns as Donald, as well.

Ricky Lurie‘s effective period costumes deserve mention, too, particularly Essie’s absurd ballet bloomers.

It’s tickling fun!

Rating: «««

 

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Chicago Theaters offer up stocking-full of Christmas Shows

A Wonderful Life  (info)   A Christmas Story  (info)
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN   Noble Fool Theatre, St. Charles
Nov 17 – Dec 14   Nov 15 – Dec 27
     
Snowflake Tim’s Big Holiday Adventure  (info)   A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol  (info)
Lifeline Theatre, Chicago   The Neo-Futurists, Chicago
Dec 14 – Jan 4   Nov 22 – Dec 23
     
A Christmas Carol  (info)   Dublin Carol  (info)
Goodman Theatre, Chicago   Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Nov 21 – Dec 31    Half-Off Tickets!   Nov 19 – Jan 9
     
Radio City Christmas Spectacular  (info)   Anung’s First American Christmas  (info)
Rosemont Theatre, Rosemont   Vitalist Theatre, Chicago
Nov 19 – Dec 21   Nov 18 – Jan 4
     
Meet Me In St. Louis  (info)    500 Clown Christmas  (info)
Drury Lane Water Tower, Chicago    North Central College, Naperville
Nov 20 – Dec 7   Dec 18 – Dec 23
     
Christmas Schooner  (info)    The Santaland Diaries  (info)
Bailiwick Repertory, Chicago   Theatre Wit, Chicago
Nov 28 – Jan 4   Nov 22 – Dec 28
     
Tommy Guns Garage Holiday Show  (info)    A Christmas Memory; The Thanksgiving Visitor  (info)
2114 S. Wabash, Chicago   Provision Theater, Chicago
Nov 28 – Dec 31   Nov 10 – Dec 21
     
 Snow Queen  (info)    Black Nativity (info)
Victory Gardens, Chicago   Congo Square Theatre, Chicago
Nov 28 – Dec 28    $15 Tickets!   Nov 21 – Dec 28
     
 Winter Pageant Redux  (info)   2nd City’s Holiday Show  (info)
Redmoon Theater, Chicago   Second City Improv, Chicago
Nov 10 – Dec 21   24-hours non-stop, Dec 9 – 10
     
Jacob Marley’s Xmas Carol    Holiday Sing-Along  (info)
Theatre Wit, Chicago (info)   Porchlight Music Theatre, Chicago
Nov 22 – Dec 28   December 15th, 7:30pm
     
A Holiday Evening of Mime    A White Christmas (info)
The Mime Company, Chicago (info)   Village Players Theatre, Oak Park
December 11 – 28   December 13 – 14
     
Sexy Santa’s Spectacular    A Christmas Carol    (more info)
Gorilla Tango Theatre, Chicago   Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe
Nov 28 – Dec 20    (more info)   Dec 13 – Dec 23         Tickets for $14 !