There are a lot of things you, our dear readers, would not want to become. Goldman Sachs drones. That one kid in your section who hasn’t showered in five days. A YDN-er writing a review far too late and on far too little caffeine. But the ultimate-crazy-undeniable #1 worst outcome are our own parents (feel free to shudder whenever).
Just how much Christopher Durang is terrified by his parents’ lives is the underlying subtext of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, the Durang play being put up this weekend by the Yale Dramatic Association as their Fall Experimental Production. Director Katherine Nelson ’13 and Producer Lily Lewis-McNeil ’12 take Durang’s work and stage it in a poignant, hard-hitting way that fills the theater with a darkness unrelated to just depressing lighting.
We begin at the beginning: the actual wedding ceremony of Bette Brennan (Bonnie Antosh ’13) and Boo Hudlocke (Peter Lewis ’13). Each is flanked by their seemingly loving families. Bette’s mother Margaret (Chandler Rosenthal ’14) is ridiculous and overbearing. Everyone’s formal and nice. Then the perpetually apologetic Emily Brennan (Peregrine Heard ’13) starts panicking about forgetting a piece of music. And the cracks became all too evident. Grinning wildly and weirdly lit up, Bette sits on stage and starts chatting to the audience about how Boo is a rebound she has known for two weeks. We ascertain that Boo’s father, Karl Hudlocke (Paul Hinkes ’15), is drinking whenever he’s not working or bullying his sweetly submissive wife, Soot (Christine Shaw ’14). Joan (Marina Horiates ’15), Bette’s other sister, is a bitter hipster in a classically 60s way, while her father Paul (Jordan Ascher ’14) communicates only via inexplicable guttural sounds. Oh, and the priest (Tom Sanchez ’12) thinks his parishioners are a bit silly and receives seemingly endless requests to help sort out the problems of the Brennan family members.
Matt Hudlocke (Michael Rosen ’14) is our companion and guide on this tragicomic voyage through three generations of increasingly bizarre family life. That means that it’s him who ushers in the (multiple) scenes featuring Bette and Boo’s stillborns, the image of a drunken Boo trying to suck gravy off the rug with a vacuum cleaner and the screeching that soon comes to typify Bette. Matt is deadpan throughout, except when he must feature in a scene himself. But audience members are sucked into the Brennan-Hudlocke spiral of family disintegration. And we do not escape unscarred.
Where the Dramat production is strongest is in its acting. The cast has a natural chemistry that manifests itself in instances like the sincerity of Horiates hugging Heard. They manage to balance believability with instant charm. Antosh is particularly effective, switching between mania, nervousness and just plain old calm Bette effortlessly and thereby communicating her character’s struggle in a genuine way.
She is aided in this by being cast opposite another talented lead. Lewis is less frenetic than Antosh. But he portrays a Boo torn apart inside by his alcoholism, his good-heartedness and his confused feelings for Bette. Watching Lewis, the audience has one of the moments Durang presumably wanted every part of this production to inspire: we feel Matt’s own conflict. Boo is remote and silent, yes. But he is not a complete villain. And, on many an occasion, we just don’t want to censure him. So what we do with him? Matt doesn’t seem to know either.
Other actors shine as well, if less consistently. Rosen is brilliant in some of the scenes where he ties in his family drama with his collegiate discussion of Thomas Hardy. He truly inspires a sort of primal sympathy when we see him ever-so-sadly, but still bitterly, interact with his now-elderly parents at the play’s end. Rosenthal is typically uproarious in the stressed but witty maternal role in which the Yale drama scene seems to have typecast her. Sanchez, Hinkes, Ascher and Shaw more than fill in the gaps in comedic impact when she is not on stage. Perhaps the best supplemental performance is that of Heard, who delicately explores what it means to be a too-obliging, too-Catholic daughter in a family facing trauma after trauma.
But major flaws in the play’s central vision stop it from being all it potentially could be. Those studying Durang usually look at this play as a slightly depressing comedy. Nelson and Lewis-McNeil have chosen to go in another direction, playing up the deep sadness and sense of waste that run through the play. This they do very well — there were moments when even this hardened reviewer teared up. However, they seem to be unwilling to completely let go of the play’s original conceptualization. This leads to bizarre jokes which, considering the decidedly dark bent of this production, often fall flat. The doctor’s dropping of the stillborn babies on the floor, for instance, just seems inappropriate now that the context around it is so much more seriously dramatic.
Concessions to comedy also cut short some opportunities the play could have had to gain an even stronger, darker foundation. An example like the scene where Hinkes angrily pours his drink on Antosh’s pregnant belly could have been extended just a few critical seconds longer to have had a much more profound impact.
Lost somewhere between an intense tragedy and a darkly funny tale of pathos, the Dramat show needs to make a definite choice about what it wants to be when it grows up, much like its central character.