All Bette Hudlocke (Serena Hines ’07) wanted was a beautiful family with lots of children she could name after Winnie the Pooh characters. But the dreams of Mrs. Hudlocke — and everyone else in Christopher Durang’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” — remain just that: dreams. The titular couple and their families float through the play in a stultifying funk, mired in the pathetic situations that have characterized their whole lives. But though the subject matter is fairly dark and the comedy often disturbingly (though amusingly) off-color, the acting and direction are spot-on. Thus, the production is a touching and realistic portrayal not of a fairy tale life, but of everyday strugglers like Mrs. Hudlocke. Ê

Appropriately, “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” focuses on the ups and downs of Mr. and Mrs. Boo Hudlocke. The story begins with the matrimonial union of the two. At the wedding, the two are so eager (and perhaps naive) that they both exclaim “I do!” before the priest has finished reading the vows. But sadly, this enthusiasm wanes over the course of the play. Various problems, from Boo’s alcoholism to Bette’s predisposition to miscarrying, put a strain on the relationship, and the audience must sadly watch as the couple dissolves. The pair, once so unaffectedly innocent that they called Boo’s parents just to chat from bed during their honeymoon, soon begin to engage in no-holds-barred screaming matches. Boo drinks away his worries while Bette degenerates into a ruthless nag who constantly chastises her husband.

Durang skillfully weaves the characters of both the Brennan and Hudlocke extended families into the narrative. Each character, from the loud, wisecracking Karl Hudlocke (William Nealon ’05) to the fretful, asthmatic Emily Brennan (Esme von Hoffman ’06), has an important role in fraying the nerves of the young couple. Both families are staunchly Catholic, and religion, with all its strengths and absurdities, plays an integral role in the drama. The religion theme is nuanced; one minute a sage Father Donnally (John Quinn ’07) advises that the young Hudlockes try the rhythm method of birth control, and another, he is gyrating on the floor, imitating bacon in a frying pan at a couples’ retreat. These ambivalent characterizations make the characters seem even more true-to-life and fallible, and thus the pathetic characters are sympathetic and the story is heart-rending.

But without convincing portrayals, the pathos of “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” would be lost, or worse, seem off-putting in its hokeyness. Luckily, the adept cast invests the story with not just plausibility but even subtle humor. Each player is excellent. Amanda Eckerson ’06, who plays Bette’s sister Joan, dazzles as an oft-pregnant, extremely anxious married woman who murderously attacks her little sister Emily after the sibling forgets how to play the accompaniment to “Lachen und Weinen,” a song Joan was to perform at Bette’s wedding. Eckerson’s rubber facial movements — expressive as “Mask”-era Jim Carrey’s — carry the scene the same way Lucille Ball’s hyper-expressions were what made the chocolate factory mishap funny. Eckerson stands out because of the uncouth hilarity of her character, but neglecting to heap the same lavish praise on each member of the cast would be unfair: the acting is simply superb.

The set, designed by Carl D’apolito-Dworkin ’06, is fairly unelaborate, consisting of elements such as a simple white curtain hung on a rod to symbolize the maternity ward in which the family members of the baby-obsessed Bette often find themselves. A pair of stained-glass windows on both sides of the stage remain throughout the play. Though they at first belonged when the scene was the church wedding, they persist even throughout the scene changes and intermission, evoking the idea of the strong influence of the Hudlockes’ and Brannons’ religion — whether or not that religion is marred by its followers’ hypocrisy. Though, as the play program notes, “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” includes unpleasant elements such as “four dead babies and a funeral,” directors Sabina Ahmed ’06 and David Busis ’06 and producer Juliette Vartikar ’06 parlay the somewhat depressing material into at the very least an amusing look into the lives of realistically troubled American families. Sparse but effective set design and costuming bolster this sense of desolation. But the talented cast’s comedic techniques endow the play with moments of joy to temper the desolation, steering the production away from the cloyingly sentimental and toward the believably bittersweet. This plausible balance makes the production a winner.

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