Christopher Durang


Full Length Plays

The Marriage of Bette & Boo

 

The Marriage of Bette & Boo  was first presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival (Joseph Papp, President) at the Public/Newman Theatre in New York City on May 16, 1985.  It was directed by Jerry Zaks; scenery was by Loren Sherman, costumes were by William Ivey Long, lighting by Paul Gallo, original music by Richard Peaslee, hair designed by Ron Frederick.  The associate producer was Jason Steven Cohen.  The production stage manager was James Harker, the stage manager was Pamela Singer.  Understudies were Dalton Dearborn, Patrick Garner, Lizbeth MacKay, Rose Arrick, Ann Hilliary.  The cast was: 

 

 

Bette Brennan

............................

Joan Allen

Margaret Brennan, her mother

............................

Patricia Falkenhain

Paul Brennan, her father

............................

Bill McCutcheon

Joan Brennan, her sister

............................

Mercedes Ruehl

Emily Brennan, her sister

............................

Kathryn Grody

Boo Hudlocke

............................

Graham Beckel

Karl Hudlocke, his father

............................

Bill Moor

Soot Hudlocke, his mother

............................

Olympia Dukakis

Father Donnally/Doctor

............................

Richard B. Shull

Matt

............................

Christopher Durang

Note: During the final week, Dalton Dearborn and Ann Hillary played Karl and Soot.

photo at top by Martha Swope: 
(l to r) Durang, Ruehl, Allen, McCutcheon, Shull, Grody, Beckel, Dukakis, Falkenhain, Moor.

 


photo: 
(l to r)  Ruehl, Grody, Allen, Falkenhain, McCutcheon

The Marriage of Bette and Boo is considered by many to be Durang’s best play to date.  Admittedly biographical, the play is based on his parents’ marriage.  Though it is a funny play told in 33 (mostly) quick  scenes, the play is known for the mixture of seriousness and comedy in its tone.

Shortly after its 1985 opening at Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, the play won a large number of Obie awards – for Durang for playwriting, for Jerry Zaks for directing, for Loren Sherman for set design, and an Ensemble Acting Obie for the entire 10 person cast.  Later that year the play also won the prestigeous Dramatists Guild Hull Warriner Award.  

The Hull Warriner award is for the best play of the year “dealing with social, religious or political issues”, and it is particularly meaningful among playwrights since it is voted not by critics but by the 30 to 40 distinguished playwright members who make up the Dramatists Guild Council.  

Some reviews included:

Christopher Durang, the humorist and satirist, has rarely written anything funnier or more serious than his mordant comedy "The Marriage of Bette and Boo."  …[Durang] has perfected the art of turning bitterness into comedy without losing its edge.  
     - Edith Oliver, The New Yorker

Christopher Durang has been the wicked and wonderful kid cartoonist of the modern theatre for a while.  Now he is one of the masters.  …wicked, wonderful and cartoony.  "Bette and Boo" is both demented and compassionate.  And wise, hysterical and incredibly sad.  There is not a false note or extra word.  
     - Linda Winer, USA Today

A remorselessly sad, achingly funny assault on the vanities, inanities and insanities of family life… All of Durang’s works have been satires built on a mound of pain, but "Bette and Boo" represents a greater effort to leaven this pain with understanding… … a new poignancy has entered his work… universal in its appeal.  
     - Robert Brustein, The Nation

…his best play yet, a sardonic, absurdist comedy which explores the disintegrating relationship and dreams of a perfect 1950s couple.  … In 33 terse, ferociously funny scenes, you watch [the marriage] fall apart over 20 years.  … There’s one other wonderful thing about this play which we should all take to heart, and that’s absolution through laughter.  After sitting through "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," you’ll see that Chris Durang has gone way beyond therapy.  He’ll never forget, but he’s learned to forgive.
   
  - Michael Sommers, New York Native
 

…extraordinarily delicate black-comic art… balancing, modulating, controlling the giddiness of "Bette and Boo" is a sympathetic, wondering sadness.
     -
Julius Novick, The Village Voice
 

The Story:


Matt introduces and narrates the story of his parents’ marriage.  As the play begins Bette and Boo are being united in matrimony, surrounded by their beaming families. But as the further progress of their marriage is chronicled it becomes increasingly clear that things are not working out quite as hoped for. The birth of their son is followed by a succession of stillborns; Boo takes to drink; and their respective families are odd lots to say the least: His father Karl is a sadistic tyrant, who refers to his wife Soot as the “dumbest white woman alive”. “How did you get the name Soot?” Bette wonders.  No one knows.  Then Bette’s family includes a cheerful dominating mother who refuses to let anybody talk about anything, and a super-sensitive sister Emily who apologizes all the time, and a bitter sister Joan with whom Bette is competitive.  Her father seems probably sweet, but due to a stroke nothing he says can be understood.  “Paul, I’ve asked you not to speak,” the mother says disapprovingly. 

For solace and counsel Bette drags Boo and other family members to see Father Donnally, a Roman Catholic priest who dodges their questions by impersonating (hilariously) a strip of frying bacon. Conveyed in a series of dazzlingly inventive interconnected scenes, the play moves on through three decades of divorce, alcoholism, madness and fatal illness— while Matt grows up and tries, without much success, to make sense of it all.  In the final scene Bette is in the hospital, dying, while Matt assures her God is not punishing her a second marriage outside the church.  “I don’t think God punishes people for specific things,” Matt says.  “I think He punishes them in general for no reason.”  “You always had a good sense of humor,” Bette says.  Boo arrives and joins this visit.  Although long divorced, Boo has continued to care for Bette.  And, with lowered expectations from both of them, Bette and Boo have an ease and pleasantness between them during this hospital visit.   As Matt prepares to leave, Bette slips into death.  Boo and Emily kneel to pray, and Matt offers an epitaph for his mother.


From Durang:  The production of this play was one of my happiest theatrical experiences, and I thought the director Jerry Zaks, all the designers, and the entire cast all worked with one vision, and that the final product was a highly distinctive and successful “artistic marriage” of  comic directing and acting, but rooted in a very strong, truthful psychological base.  

It was only Joan Allen’s second acting job in New York City (after many standout performances at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago), and it was exciting to watch her in the subsequent years win a Tony for Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, and be nominated several times for an oscar.  And cast members Mercedes Ruhel and Olympia Dukakis both won oscars in the years following, Mercedes for The Fisher King, and Olympia for Moonstruck.  Then Mercedes won a Tony for Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers.  And Bill McCutcheon won a Tony award a couple of years later for Jerry Zaks’ revival of Anything Goes.  

The entire cast of this production gave wonderful performances, the sort that makes authors grateful.  So I thank them warmly, and for the way also they accepted me into their ranks for this production. 

In 1989 there was a notable production of Bette and Boo in Los Angeles, directed by Dennis Erdman at the L.A. Theatre Center.  The excellent cast included Christine Ebersole and Guy Boyd as Bette and Boo, and included Bryan Clarke, Angela Patton, Stefan Gierasch, Stephen Tobolowsky, Lynn Milgrim, Lela Ivey, Jane Galloway, and David Marshall Grant as Matt (followed by Mitchell Lichtenstein).

In the late 90s both Juilliard School and NYU Drama Division put on notable student productions.  And Marcus Stern, the director of the NYU one, went on to direct a memorable revival of the play in 1998 at Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

The A.R.T. production of Bette and Boo, in conjunction with a New York revival of John Guare’s Marco Polo Sings a Solo, triggered an interesting article by Steve Vinberg in a publication called The Threepenny Review, discussing my and Guare’s careers.  I hadn’t seen it when John Guare nicely sent it to me; it’s complimentary to both of us, and makes comments how Guare and I do and do not fit in among contemporary dramatists.   I will include a link to this article soon. 


note on name:  By the way, the name Bette is pronounced like Bette Midler – that is, it’s one syllable, Bet.  It is not Betty, like Betty Hutton or Betty Davis.  

I can’t solve it because it’s entered popular culture… but Bette Davis’ name was Bet, one syllable, Davis.  She chose it rather than Betty, I read, because the one syllable name  sounded more mature and sophisticated.  However, her friends all called her Betty.  This fact became so known that on TV and radio and in interviews, everyone would refer to her as Betty Davis – as if she was our good friend, and we were in the know.

By the time I wrote my play, because of Bette Davis’ nickname of Betty, most people came to believe that one of the ways to spell “Betty” is Bette, or Bett-e.  This is not correct.  (Gosh, I sound like Sister Mary Ignatius explaining the Immaculate Conception.) The name “Bette” is not pronounced “Betty.” You don’t, luckily for my play, look at Bette Midler’s name and say “Betty” Midler.

So if you would, the pronunciation of Bette in my play is but one syllable:  Bet.  Marriage of Bet and Boo, spelled Bette and Boo.

By the way, Lauren Bacall’s nickname is also Betty.  Please pronounce Lauren as Lauren, and not as Betty (haha).

Cast size: 5 male, 5 female
Rights: Dramatists Play Service

Note: the New York Shakespeare Festival 1985 production was taped and may be watched at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library with permission.

 

photos by Martha Swope


 

 “Karl, is there still a space
 between my eyes?”
(Dukakis, Moor, Beckel)
Fr. Donnally imitates bacon.
(Falkenhain, McCutcheon in sheet, Shull)
Matt tries to decipher the garbled
speech of the divorce lawyer. 
(Durang, McCutcheon)
Bette and Boo recall good times. 
(Allen, Beckel)
Bette’s last moments.
(Durang, Allen, Beckel)

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