Comparing John Guare and Christopher Durang (by Steve Vineberg)
Note from Durang: The following essay was written by Steve Vineberg in 1998 for The Threepenny Review. At the time American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts was presenting a production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo. And the Signature Theatre in New York City was devoting an entire season to the work of John Guare, including the play Marco Polo Sings a Solo.
John G. very kindly sent me a copy of the article, since it is very complimentary to both of us.
The article deals with the Guare play first, and Bette and Boo second. Because I admire John Guare’s play and his writing in general, I leave in all the analysis of the Guare play (with Mr. Vineberg’s permission). But I do include a link to further down in the article if you want to find the Bette and Boo discussion quickly.
Mr. Vineberg is both a film and theatre critic. He writes for The Boston Phoenix and teaches at Holy Cross College.
In the stratosphere of the American theater, John Guare and Christopher Durang fly ~ roughly ~ side by side. They are our two looniest geniuses. And the unpredictability of their best work, its refusal to ring familiar bells for audiences and critics and academics, must be at least part of the reason why, though Guare has been writing for the stage for three decades and Durang for two, they haven’t received anything like the serious attention they merit. Perhaps it’s also because they work almost exclusively in the realm of comedy. Whatever the reasons, when their names register at all among people who love theater, it’s generally for one or two pieces (Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation; Durang’s Beyond Therapy and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It for You), rather than for a body of work, and their newest pieces never occasion the kind of excitement that, say, Sam Shepard’s or David Mamet’s do. That’s why some of us are so grateful for Signature Theatre Company’s decision to mount a season of Guare in their diminutive 42nd Street house and American Repertory Theatre’s inclusion of Durang’s most corrosive and haunting play, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, among its 1998-99 offerings. This is a landmark season for these underattended playwrights, both of whom also have new works on the boards in New York: Playwrights Horizons is mounting Betty’s Summer Vacation by Durang and Signature’s Guare tribute culminates in a production of his latest, Lake Hollywood. Marco Polo Sings a Solo at Signature and The Marriage of Bette and Boo directed by Marcus Stern at Cambridge’s A.R.T. gave us the opportunity to take another look at two of the most unusual and exhilarating plays in the contemporary American canon.
Guare wrote Marco Polo Sings a Solo in the midst of a period of an extraordinarily rich and prolific period in his writing ~ comparable, I’d say, to the first decade of Tennessee Williams’s career. Between 1971 and 1982 he produced The House of Blue Leaves, Rich and Famous, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, Landscape of the Body, Bosoms and Neglect, Gardenia and Lydie Breeze, as well as the book for the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona and two produced screenplays, Taking Off and Atlantic City. Guare, notorious for tinkering with his material, rendered several versions of Marco Polo before it was finally given a New York opening in 1977; there are even two in print, an acting edition published by Dramatists and another in a Mentor anthology called Plays from the Contemporary American Theater. (The rumor goes that during rehearsals on Nantucket, its original venue, he would appear every day with new pages for the cast to assimilate, literally tossing the old ones into a wastebasket, and that some observers, dazzled by the quality of even the discards, would riffle through the trash at the end of the day for souvenirs.) It now seems incredible that so little attention was showered on the production, which proffered a cast to salivate for: Joel Grey, Madeline Kahn, Anne Jackson (replacing Piper Laurie from the Nantucket performance), Chris Sarandon, and (a still unknown) Sigourney Weaver. Signature’s vivacious revival last fall ~ to my knowledge the first professional one in these two decades ~ brought back the original director, Mel Shapiro, who was Guare’s most frequent collaborator in the seventies.
In his preface to the published edition of The House of Blue Leaves, Guare asks why Strindberg and Feydeau shouldn’t marry, or at least live together, and in Marco Polo he experiments with a menage a quatre: Feydeau, Ibsen, Philip Barry and science-fiction. The play is a highly poetic play with elements of farce, it includes an extended burlesque of A Doll’s House, and Guare insists in his Author’s Note that it’s also “a high comedy, played very grandly and confidently as if it were some 21st century reworking of The Philadelphia Story.” Set on an iceberg on the coast of Norway in an extravagantly imagined 1999 (the play, we remember, was written in the mid-Seventies), which the movie-director protagonist, Stony McBride (Bruce Norris in the Signature production), has civilized into luxurious chic with a network of heat lamps, Marco Polo assembles an aristocracy of celebrity, each of them set on a mission of relentless self-reinvention. Stony is a famous filmmaker embarked upon his most ambitious project, a movie about Marco Polo that, he hopes, will “help the audience recuperate from the entire 20th century.” Like the hero of his picture, Stony dreams of discovering new worlds, but he’s too terrified to get beyond himself, and too tentative about his own identity even to resolve what that self might be. He clings to his wife, Diane (played by the remarkable Judith Hawking), who is preparing to leave him ~ she signals his intentions by attending avant-garde productions of A Doll’s House all over the world ~ and in his own mind he projects himself onto another hero, the astronaut Frank Schaeffer (Chuck Cooper), whose highly publicized space travels are for Stony the end-of-the-millennium equivalent of Marco Polo’s adventures. Stony has complicated, unsatisfying relationships with both his parents, the one-time rock star Lusty McBride (Beeson Carroll), who has just elected to walk off the set of his movie (Stony’s cast him in the title part), and his drug-addled mom, Debbie-Lisa (Polly Holliday, in a major performance), an emblem of flower power in the Sixties; but his life-long belief that they adopted him permits him to see himself as self-created. On this early-spring day in 1999, however, Debbie-Lisa tells him the truth. In his own yearning for metamorphosis, and out of an apparently unfulfillable homosexual desire for Lusty, a young groupie named Elliot underwent a sex-change operation to become the ravishing Debbie-Lisa, first depositing a sample of his own sperm so that, in an act of gloriously unparalleled narcissism, he could impregnate him/ herself. Stony, as he learns in Act One, is the consequence of this gesture of self-love. The irony of Mrs. McBride’s her narrative, which suggests O. Henry on acid, is that once Debbie-Lisa entered Lusty’s world, auditioning for his new rock musical, winning the female lead on the strength of her newly sculpted body, and marrying him on opening night, she discovered that it was Elliot he’d craved all along. He got close to her on the misconception that she was Elliot’s twin sister and could provide a conduit to the mysteriously absent object of his own desire.
Diane McBride was a child prodigy in the musical world who gave up her life as a pianist when she married and has regretted it, probably, every day of her life with Stony, but she keeps the delusion alive that she can return to her glittering past any damn time she pleases. “The clock has not yet started ticking on my life,” she insists. “I’ll let life know when I’m ready for it to begin.” But she’s become unmoored. Pregnant (with Stony’s second child) because “I wanted something in me so I wouldn’t float away,” now she’s focused on her lover, the Kissinger-like diplomat Tom Wintermouth (Jack Koenig), who woos her away from Stony with the twin promises of a renewed career and a place at his side when his top-secret discovery of the cure for cancer propels him to the top of the Washington political ladder. His main rival is Frank Schaeffer, who plans what Diane correctly identifies as the public-relations coup of the century: he’s had Secret Service men insert a metal disc into the vagina of his wife Skippy (Opal Alladin), and he plans to impregnate her with “the 21st-century man” via bolts filled with his sperm and catapulted from space during his orbit of the planet. But Skippy isn’t interested in playing Madonna to a poster child for her husband’s presidential campaign; she’s escaped to this iceberg, where, with a (ridiculously) affected Scandinavian accent, she calls herself Freydis and keeps house for the McBrides. The final player in this helium-boosted high comedy is Larry Rockwell (the Latino actor Robert Morgan, who has crack timing and the manic persistence of a true clown), whose relationship with Diane is Guare’s hilarious reworking of the old melodrama Magnificent Obsession. She hit him with her car, destroying both his legs, and then adopted him as a confidant and all-purpose accessory. He follows her everywhere, hopping around on his two wooden legs, resisting her encouragement to find a life of his own ~ even though science can now furnish him with far sturdier and more flexible hoppers that would enable him to be self-reliant.
Guare describes the setting of his comedy as “a limitless world,” and what fascinates him about people with the money and talent and fame to inhabit it is the question of what they might find to hold onto. “The answer,” he writes, “seemed to be obvious: yourself. Each character in Marco Polo Sings a Solo is yearning for an even greater glory, an ever greater beauty, a greater power, a greater love, a greater truth, and moving into such intense territory by yourself, the very same self becomes all the more important. Everyone in the play is a Marco Polo, travelling out by himself, herself or both selves in the case of one character [Mrs. McBride, of course].” The play is partly Guare’s satire of the Seventies, the Me Decade. The characters are obsessively self-reflexive, forever standing apart from themselves to watch themselves, in wonder and self-congratulation. When Diane receives Greig’s original piano from Tom as ~ ostensibly ~ an anniversary gift, she dramatizes her own response over lunch, as if she were running a videotape of herself. When Stony comes in from filming, he tells his wife proudly, “I just shot the last scene of the film. Was it the light? The look on my father’s face?” These characters seem to be walking around with mirrors hanging down in front of their faces; they can’t connect ~ just as Lusty and Debbie-Lisa couldn’t ~ because their own needs and wants and self-perceptions stand between them. Guare has come up with the wildest comic-theatrical metaphors for narcissism: the transsexual who literally fucks himself, the semen-fueled bolts out of the blue. Stony’s answer to Diane’s A Doll’s House frenzy is to rewrite the play with Torvald and not Nora as the her.
Ibsen’s entire point is Nora’s husband knew she was leaving and quick as a shooting star, he constructed a new living room that enclosed the outside of the front door. So when Nora left she found herself not in the outside world, but in another, a newer, a stranger room. And since there was no door in that room, she drew a window and quickly climbed out of it. But her brilliant, heroic husband built a new room off that window. And she beat down the walls of that new room and the walls crumbled and her hands bled and the dust cleared and she found herself in a newer room still damp from construction. And she crawled through the ceiling, gnawing, and her husband dropped a new room on top of that escape hatch. So the wife invented fire and burned down all the rooms and her skin blistered but she smiled for she knew she would soon be free. And the smoke cleared and an enormous igloo domed the sky and she ripped out her heart and intestines and forged them into an ice pick and chopped her way out through the sky and she opened the ice door that would lead her into the nebula, the Milky Way, heaven, freedom, but no, she chopped back the door to heaven and was warmed by the glow of a cozy room, her Christmas card list, a lifetime subscription to a glossy magazine called Me, her children, her closet crammed with clothes, her possessions, her life sat waiting for her in a rocking chair.
The play could be called Me, like that magazine Stony-Torvald orders up to amuse Diane-Nora and keep her grounded in his little domestic world.
At the end of Act One, Frank Schaeffer’s bolts come down, seeking the receptor he’s had planted in slippery Skippy, bringing a riotous apocalypse. (This is a tricky scene to stage, and in the Signature production it was rather clumsy.) As she ducks and parries, they explode everything in their path, including the island where Stony’s been shooting, the plane carrying his dissatisfied father home to California, and the cylinder handcuffed to Tom’s wrist (prompting him to emit the play’s best one-liner: “The cure for cancer? Where is it? It was right here”). The “21st-century man” forces its way out of Skippy’s womb fully grown, looks around him at the pitiful old world he’s been born into, and drowns himself. Everyone’s hopes for an even glossier future are destroyed, and the short second act is like a vaudeville revue in which each of the remaining characters, with increasing desperation, takes on new roles to compensate for the ones they’ve lost. Stony finally gets to be Frank Schaeffer, at least for a little while. He dons the astronaut’s abandoned space suit and zooms into orbit, landing on a planet where the erotic force is so powerful that he finds himself propagating with a plant that produces infinite replicas of him. “This is the world I want!” he exclaims joyfully. “A world populated by only me.” But this mirror world turns out to be a nightmare: “Mes fill the horizon. . . . Me! Me! Notice me! Each me screaming to be heard. Me! Me! Each me ignoring the other me. Each one moaning, whining Me!” Determining that “this is not the me I had planned to be,” Stony burns the planet and descends back to earth, where Frank Schaeffer tells him sadly, “I found that planet. I killed it. It grows back.”
However, Guare provides a final surprise: a happy ending. Stony’s journey changes him ~ and it’s the only true and lasting change any of these Marco Polos undergoes in the course of the play. In one of his spectacularly convoluted diatribes, Stony explains to Tom why he identifies with plants rather than animals: “[P]lants have roots. Plants are trapped. Plants are dependent. . . . We may look like meat, but we’re not meat. We can never escape. We can never change.” Stony’s perverse, terrified reimagining of nature confirms his own fear of change, which is echoed in each of his companions, and at the end of the play they’re all stuck where they are, toasting the new century. Diane has aborted her child in an impulsive attempt to regenerate her abandoned concert career; when her old teacher brings her down to reality, she races back to Stony, hopeful that he can provide a safe haven for her. She implores him, “I want you to go out and do what you have to do and I‘ll go out and do what I have to do and then we’ll both come home and beg forgiveness and we’ll both swear we’ll be different and both swear we’ll change but our secret that holds us together is that we secretly love and adore the way we are.” Tom, his Washington aspirations charred to ashes along with the cure for cancer, tries to talk Stony into engaging him as a creative consultant on his next picture. Frank, willing to settle for Skippy/Freydis, adopts his own ersatz-Scandinavian identity to match hers. “I am Einar,” he announces in a bad Norwegian accent, and at the end he comes on carrying a door, explaining to the audience, “I am not ready to go through any doors, but what I will do is fix this door so when I am ready to go through a door, I will have the door with me.” But Stony looks hard, for the first time, at “all these people waiting for a future that would never come, and when it did come, when the new century finally did arrive, they would wait another hundred for yet another new century and then a hundred years for another waiting waiting always for rebirth.” He can no longer wait; he opts instead to move “into the now. . . . Into the present. . . . Grow. Change.” And as he reclaims his “plant nature,” with a braver, more optimistic notion of what it really means, two green plants appear in his outstretched hands.
Shapiro’s remounting of this astonishingly freewheeling and profound comedy was a joy. In the absence of a videotape of the first production, we can only imagine how Joel Grey and Madeline Kahn must have orchestrated the banter between the McBrides, who are Guare’s more jaded revisions of the Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn characters in the great Philip Barry movies, but Bruce Norris was affecting and oddly charming as Stony, and Judith Hawking was staggeringly good as Diane. Sporting Teresa Snider-Stein’s most splendidly outre costumes (a black-and-red coat that seems to have put together like a jigsaw puzzle, a shocking scarlet gown, a pink Fifties cocktail dress with white gloves, a straw coolie hat and silver high heels), Hawking, true to the spirit of tireless redefinition in her character, invented a completely idiosyncratic high-comic style for Diane out of her long, forward-thrusting face and her heavy, Tallulah Bankhead eyelids and a corkscrew vocal attack that always landed on the least obvious word in a sentence. And Polly Holliday, a far more gifted actress than I’d ever suspected, surfed the tonal shifts in Mrs. McBride’s four-page monologue (the story of how Elliot became Debbie-Lisa). Even the least inspired performers in the cast did no real damage ~ Jack Koenig as Wintermouth and, disappointingly, Chuck Cooper as Frank Schaeffer. (A powerhouse presence as the pimp in the Broadway musical The Life, he was possibly miscast here.) The aim of the production was clearly to rekindle a wonderful play that hasn’t made its deserved mark.
The qualities of Christopher Durang’s 1985 play emerged in American Repertory Theatre’s production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, but it must be admitted that they had a few more obstacles to get past than Guare’s did. With its mania for heavily conceptual shows to confirm its cutting-edge reputation, the company came up with a surrealist, forced-perspective corridor set (designed by Molly Hughes) that was mesmerizing for the first half hour and a distraction for most of the rest of the evening, while it severely limited staging choices for the director, Marcus Stern. Bette and Boo cries out for a hyperbolic set design, but this one seemed, finally, all wrong. The play isn’t surrealist; it’s a strange mix of absurdist burlesque and the kind of satire that takes a torch to its subject, with an underpinning of psychological realism. And the acting at A.R.T. was uneven, though it’s only fair to add that in this case, I did see (on videotape) the original New York production, which was brilliantly directed by Jerry Zaks and starred Joan Allen, Mercedes Ruehl, Olympia Dukakis and Durang himself in the central role of the narrator, Matt, whose parents are the woefully mismatched Bette and Boo. Durang constructed this play around his memories of his own family, and when he played Matt, his unmistakable tone of anguished befuddlement felt so clearly like a completion of the character that the play became ~ however he might have transformed those memories ~ as deeply autobiographical as Long Day’s Journey into Night.
The tone of the play as a whole is actually more complex: pained bafflement, but also, in equal parts, fury and compassion. Durang’s humor is both scandalously funny and shockingly cruel; this is the blackest of black comedies. But it burns through to a bizarre but unmistakable forgiveness for both Bette and Boo; in a way, this is as much Durang’s A Moon for the Misbegotten as it is his Long Day’s Journey. Certainly he and O’Neill come out of the same world: the American family, Irish-Catholic division. And the problems that besiege Bette and Boo are as dire as the ones the Tyrones had to contend with. Boo Hudlocke (Randall Jaynes, handling a perilously difficult role with considerable skill) and his father Karl (the excellent Will LeBow) and Bette’s (unseen) brother Tom Brennan are all alcoholics. Karl also has a mean mouth, and his cruelties have driven his wife Soot to at least one nervous breakdown, while his unremitting condescension to her has rendered her practically invisible to herself. (Paula Plum added an unexpected touch of Tennessee Williams southern-belle to her portrayal of Soot.) Bette’s sister Joan (Kristin Flanders) is trapped in a hopeless marriage ~ like Tom, her husband Nikkos remains forever in the wings, in permanent retreat from her family ~ which she meets by producing a steady stream of children she can’t handle and an impressive battery of hostile wisecracks. The third sister, Emily (Sophia Fox-Long), a pious and benign spinster who also spends time in a psychiatric institution, is the repository, it seems, for the Brennan family’s stored-up guilt; when a panic attack prevents her from remembering the cello part to the piece she and Joanie and their father are meant to play at Bette and Boo’s wedding, she writes everyone letters of apology for years. Their mother, Margaret (Karen MacDonald), couches a domineering nature and an uncharitable spirit in a ferociously upbeat social style; her answer to every disaster ~ or every situation that isn’t to her liking, like her son Tom’s homosexuality ~ is to pretend she doesn’t see it. (“There are many pleasant things in the world,” she instructs Emily, “think of them.”) She doesn’t have to do much to overpower her husband, Paul (Thomas Derrah, American Rep’s most valued comic, performing delightfully), because he’s had a stroke and his remarks, on the rare occasions when he offers them, are indecipherable. (“Paul, I’ve asked you not to speak,” Margaret reminds him. “We can’t understand you.”) When Bette (Caroline Hall) marries Boo, she’s still a virgin, but she’s on the rebound from an aborted romance with a married man, and it’s clear she doesn’t have a clue what she’s getting herself into. She longs for a huge brood of children to lavish affection on, but an RH incompatibility kills every one of her babies ~ except Matt ~ at birth. Still, resolved that prayer and her own determination will win out in the end, she keeps getting pregnant and insisting on carrying her babies to term. Durang depicts these tiny corpses with a series of dolls, tossed on the floor of the hospital waiting room by an indifferent doctor. These repeated disappointments, and her inability to make Boo stop drinking, turn her into a shrew and cause her to smother Matt, whom she tries to freeze in childhood by continuing to call him by his nickname, Skippy, even after he’s gone on to graduate school. Meanwhile the marriage, probably doomed from the first, hobbles into an inevitable dead end ~ though, touchingly, Boo continues to adore her until the end of her life.
The play takes place over many years; it begins with the wedding and ends with Bette’s untimely death from cancer, when Matt is probably in his thirties. Durang presents it as a series of short episodes, some of them recreating major events in the life of the family ~ stillbirths, Paul’s death, the divorce ~ and most of them recalling particularly painful moments, like the church retreat Bette bullies Boo into going on with her and the times she makes him take a vow before their family priest that he’ll never touch another drop. Some take place on holidays, which Matt decides were invented by a sadist, because that’s when everyone seems to behave at his or her worst. Durang rivals Strindberg or O’Neill when he depicts how people argue who’ve been living together too long, or when he replicates the crazy logic of a domestic quarrel. At the climax of a horrendous family Thanksgiving, a drunken Boo stumbles into Emily, knocking the gravy out of her hands and staining the rug, then rushes for the vacuum cleaner in a nutty effort to counter his clumsiness. “You don’t vacuum gravy!” Bette screeches at him, repeating it over and over, as if the idiocy of his error were the embodiment of the trials of being married to such a man. He ends up passed out in the middle of the living room, with Bette trying to rouse him because, as she explains to Matt, “I just want to get through to him about the gravy.” Matt and his father are so awkward together that their conversations seem like communications between different planets. He’s close to his mother, but her impossible expectations of him (her most ghastly line to him is “You’re the only one of my children that lived. You should see me more often”) prompt him to invent an entire dialogue between them where she behaves, for once, reasonably and unhysterically. When he turns to the audience at the end of the scene and explains, with embarrassment, “I’m afraid I made that conversation up totally,” we might think of Alvy Singer consoling himself after his breakup with Annie Hall by writing a play about her that ends with them back together. And after all, who among us hasn’t had Matt’s fantasy that a parent will finally say all the calm, wise, sensitive things to us that we’ve been hoping for all these years?
Matt introduces or otherwise annotates most of the scenes. He’s struggling to understand his awful family, whom he both loves and resents, and who have, throughout his life, continually put him in the worst possible position. (His mother is the most persistent culprit: she repeatedly makes him her ally against Boo, and during the divorce proceedings her lawyer even subpoenas him as a witness.) The Marriage of Bette and Boo is the drama of that struggle. He juggles the details of their lives and personalities, trying to catalogue and make sense of them. “When ordering reality,” he explains to us, “it is necessary to accumulate all the facts pertaining to the matter at hand. When all the facts are not immediately available, one must try to reconstruct them by considering oral history ~ hearsay, gossip, and apocryphal stories. And then with perseverance and intelligence, the analysis of these facts should bring about understanding.”
But this attempt is, like his parents’ marriage, fated to fail. He finds that he can’t keep the story linear ~ he keeps breaking into the chronology, flashing forward and flashing back with what feels like increasing desperation. And by the middle of the second act, either wearied by the effort or confused by the volume of unhelpful information, he becomes blurry about the dates and the length of time that transpired between the main events. He tries out different explanations for his parents’ behavior, hoping that one will feel right: “Now the fact of the matter is that Boo isn’t really an alcoholic at all, but drinks simply because Bette is such a terrible, unending nag. Or, perhaps Boo is an alcoholic, and Bette is a terrible, unending nag in reaction to his drinking so much . . . Or perhaps it’s the fault of the past history of stillbirths and the pressures that that history puts on their physical relationship. Perhaps blame can be assigned totally to the Catholic Church.” He turns to the literature he loves ~ Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad ~ in the hope that it will illuminate the mysteries his own family have stuck him with (“[Boo] just isn’t `there’ for her, anymore than Clym Yeobright is really there for Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native, although admittedly Eustacia Vye is very neurotic, but then so is Bette also”). But all he ends up with is a series of questions no one can answer: Why did Boo drink? Why did Bette keep trying to have babies? Why didn’t Soot leave Karl? Why was her name Soot?
In the world of this play, no one can give you any valuable advice ~ not your relatives, not the doctors, and most emphatically not the Catholic Church. When Matt asks his grandfather, Karl, how to avoid making the same mistakes the rest of his family has made, the old man tells him, “Don’t expect too much, that’s for starters” and, finally, “Go away. I don’t like talking to you. You’re an irritating young man.” The only character who seems to counsel with any sensitivity is Paul ~ but, of course, no one can understand what he’s saying. (Except for those of us who consult the script, since Durang has translated his private, post-stroke language ~ which is almost all vowels ~ in parenthesis.) The church is embodied in the person of Father Donnally, a ridiculous figure who is way better at party games ~ he does a mean imitation of bacon frying ~ than he is at marital counseling. (Remo Airaldi’s genuine oddball performance in this role ~ he doubled as the delivery-room doctor ~ was one of the pleasures of Stern’s production.) The priest has no answers for Bette, or for the pathetically self-deprecating Emily, except “All problems can be worked out, can’t they? . . . Through faith” ~ and he doesn’t sound too sure about that. In the noble tradition of great Catholic writers, Durang directs much of his anger against the church ~ no surprise, if you’re familiar with Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You or his marvelous two-hander Laughing Wild ~ and much of it against God himself. Matt veers between refusing to believe in God and being enraged at him. “I don’t think God punishes people for specific things,” he tells his mother, dying in the hospital. “I think He punishes people in general, for no reason.”
It’s Matt’s affection for his mother that provides, I think, the emotional core of the play. Bette’s longing for children seems to be an extension of her own childishness: Matt’s nickname comes from a movie she loved as a child, she still reads A.A. Milne avidly, and when she’s alone in bed late at night, waiting for Boo to wander home from some bar, she telephones her elementary-school friend, Bonnie Wilson, now married and living in Florida, whom she hasn’t spoken to in years. The sound I always hear in my head after any production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo is the woeful, tentative tone of Bette’s voice striving to keep afloat in the terrible solitude of the night as she bids farewell to this reluctant confidente: “Goodbye, Bonnie, it was good to hear your voice.” At the end of the play, the only child of hers who lived eulogizes her: “Bette passed into death, and is with God. She is in heaven where she has been reunited with the four dead babies, and where she waits for Boo, and for Bonnie Wilson, and Emily, and Pooh Bear and Eeyore, and Kanga and Roo; and for me.” That final phrase is a tender ache in Matt’s heart, because he knows he’s not coming.
March 18, 1998
By Steve Vineberg
Published in Threepenny Review