Theater Reviews

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Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York (Through Sept. 7)

In 1985, Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" debuted off-Broadway to great acclaim, demonstrating anew how black comedy and tragedy could be wed into a razor-sharp union. Twenty-three years later, the production has been revived, and the relationship between seat-squirmy humor and unexpected poignance not only endures but proves more compatible than ever.

Performed against blood-red walls with a minimum of props, the tale's 10 characters initially enact the titular pairing of lovebirds Bette and Boo. Then, the narrative covers the next 20 years as Bette, Boo and their nuclear families experience alcoholism, madness, stillborn babies, divorce, senility and death. Not exactly sitcom material.

The fact that Durang is able to wring consistent laughs from such dark subjects is a testament to his ability to ever so slightly exaggerate life's truisms in a manner that viewers will recognize and embrace. That might partially be because much of the material is autobiographical.

Whether negotiating the inability to communicate, the power of guilt or the joy of inflicting pain on others, Durang presents his players in one of three flavors: missing a compassion chip, being annoyingly sentient or living in a fool's paradise. There's no middle ground, making each of the principals amusingly arch.

Neither does Durang have any qualms about being politically incorrect, leading to episodes satirizing mental illness, the speech-impaired and biological mishaps -- with all creating discomfort and chuckles in equal measure. Displaying yet another sleight of hand, he weaves in literary allusions to Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf that enhance the storytelling without ever seeming pretentious.

Collectively, it adds up to an eclectic stew. However, director Walter Bobbie keeps the developments moving at lightning speed as the script's 33 scenes --some of which involve nonlinear storytelling by Bette and Boo's grown son Matt -- seamlessly blend from one to another.

Bobbie also works wonders with his cast, each of whom brilliantly tackles the roles enacted in 1985 by the likes of Joan Allen, Olympia Dukakis, Mercedes Ruehl and Durang himself. This time around, the ever-reliable Kate Jennings Grant and Christopher Evan Welch breathe life into Bette and Boo, while those embodying their often-shouting relatives include Tony winner Victoria Clark, veteran troopers Julie Hagerty and John Glover as well as Adam LeFevre, Zoe Lister-Jones, Heather Burns and Charles Socarides. And though each hits all the right marks, Terry Beaver's acerbic priest earns special kudos for -- if nothing else -- a dead-on impression of sizzling bacon.

Cast: Victoria Clark, Julie Hagerty, John Glover, Kate Jennings Grant, Christopher Evan Welch, Terry Beaver, Heather Burns, Adam LeFevre, Zoe Lister-Jones, Charles Socarides. Playwright: Christopher Durang. Director: Walter Bobbie. Scenic Designer: David Korins. Costume Designer: Susan Hilferty. Lighting Designer: Donald Holder.

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