It seems safe to say that playwright Christopher Durang is no fan of the Catholic Church. But where would his plays be without it? Who but a cradle Catholic schooled before Vatican II could marry the sublime and the ridiculous as gleefully as Durang does in his dark comedies? Take, for example, the scene from Laughing Wild in which the Infant of Prague appears as a guest on an afternoon talk show. Dressed in the ornate robes and imperial crown of Christ triumphant, the “Infant” serenely explicates church teaching on sexual morality. His host objects that this scheme sounds highly impractical. “The divine is impractical,” the Infant replies. “That’s why it’s divine.”
Against the anarchy and absurdity that reign in Durang’s plays, religion proves a less-than-mighty bulwark. Durang’s most notorious—and funniest—assault on Catholicism is his 1981 Off-Broadway smash, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, a one-act styled as a course in the Baltimore Catechism. Sister Mary, the tyrannical teaching nun of legend, is bent on saving her students’ souls, even if she has to kill their spirits (or bodies) in the process. She has no patience for fuzzy notions of love, service, or mercy. Religion, for her, is a divinely ordained obstacle course. She believes in salvation by dogma alone, and though the reforms of Vatican II left her slightly disoriented, she nevertheless warns that those who question ex cathedra pronouncements “risk hell fire; or, now that things are becoming more liberal, many, many years in purgatory.” She regards Scripture as an irritating distraction, except when she needs a comeback—questioned, she scolds, “O ye of little faith, Christ said to someone.”
Durang’s 1985 play The Marriage of Bette and Boo, revived Off-Broadway this summer by the Roundabout Theater Company, is a more ambitious work than Sister Mary Ignatius, and the most directly autobiographical of his works. In a series of short, ruthless scenes, Durang deconstructs his parents’ unhappy marriage and his own lonely childhood. Hapless Bette marries alcoholic Boo and dreams of a big family; the birth of their son, Matt, is followed by a string of stillbirths. The story is narrated by the grown-up Matt—a character played by Durang himself in the original New York production. “Having intelligence allows one to analyze problems and to make sense of one’s life,” Matt tells the audience hopefully. But even extensive research into the novels of Thomas Hardy hasn’t given him a way to make sense of his family’s suffering.
Bette and Boo is a comedy with no comic relief—the pain is so unrelenting it eventually seems like a joke. Matt is hardly noticed by his grieving, nagging mother and his defeated, withdrawn father. His grandparents are no better: Boo’s father, Karl, also an alcoholic, is cruel to his wife, Soot. She ignores Karl’s drinking, giggles at his insults, and claims not to remember how she got her ugly nickname. Bette’s father, Paul, an apparent stroke victim, would probably be quite pleasant if anyone could interpret his garbled speech. His wife, Margaret, prefers that he not talk at all. In the face of troubles, she advises her three unhappy daughters to smile and change the subject: “There are many pleasant things in the world,” she counsels. “Think of them.”
Unable to communicate with or comfort each other, the characters turn to the church for guidance. Fr. Donnally, an avuncular but uninspiring pastor (played in the Roundabout revival by the splendid Terry Beaver), presides at Bette and Boo’s wedding and at subsequent family events. He is kinder but no wiser than Sister Mary Ignatius. Preaching at Paul’s funeral, he wearily observes that death is a mystery, much like the secrets Our Lady entrusted to the children at Fatima; he closes with the consoling thought that Paul’s demise was “age-appropriate.” (The eulogy has been rewritten for this production, removing casual racism from Father’s list of flaws—originally, he baffled the mourners with an anecdote about the simple faith of “colored people.”) As Father sees it, “God’s law” leaves few options for those who stray from the narrow path or find themselves pushed off it. His sermon on the challenges of matrimony gives way to an irritated rant about couples who marry hastily and expect him to fix their problems, forcing him to “mumble platitudes” and ask, “Why did God make people stupid?”
Father’s shortcomings do nothing to shake the devotion of Bette’s family—“He’s a priest,” they admonish anyone who objects to his suggestions or methods. On the other hand, they seldom actually listen to what he says. “Do you believe in miracles, Father?” Bette asks him. He answers cautiously, “Miracles rarely happen, Bette,” but she squeals, “I do too!” and runs off to announce that she has Father’s blessing to keep getting pregnant.
Matt believes he might avoid the traps his family fell into if he can only understand what brought them down. “Perhaps blame can be assigned totally to the Catholic Church,” he proposes. But his memories, and his studies, force him to admit that this is unfair. “James Joyce can be blamed on the Catholic Church,” he notes, “but not really Thomas Hardy.” He realizes with dismay that his loved ones were complicit in their own unhappiness.
Durang was in his thirties when he played Matt; Charles Socarides, the Roundabout’s Matt, seems even younger. This muddles the play’s timeline, since it’s no longer clear he grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. Director Walter Bobbie decided to keep Matt young, since he speaks like a grad student writing a thesis, but he neglected to find other ways to signal which decades the play passes through. With no clear time frame, the characters’ grim deference to the church seems anachronistic. (On the other hand, whenever Fr. Donnally appeared, I found myself expecting an accusation of sexual perversity that never came. “Little blessings,” as Soot might say.) The family’s issues are universal, but their context is very specific, and the vagueness of this production’s setting blunts the play’s impact. Also detrimental is Bobbie’s tendency to play up the script’s zany humor, when what needs emphasizing most is its humanity. It can be difficult to see the genuine emotions reflected in Durang’s fun-house mirror.
Not all the cast members seem comfortable in the play’s world. Bette’s sister Emily, played by Heather Burns, is too one-dimensional, constantly hysterical to the point of tedium. The other sister, Joan, is a grouch, but Zoe Lister-Jones makes her incongruously sarcastic where she ought to be simply bitter. And Matt’s earnest speeches tend to drag, while a few come off as wan stand-up routines. But Victoria Clark is a marvel as Margaret, straining to keep smiling through one tragedy after another, and she is nearly matched by Julie Hagerty’s giggling, heartbreaking Soot. With a subtle shift of the eyes, Christopher Evan Welch carries Boo from earnest young bridegroom to middle-aged, addlebrained drunk, surveying his failures with a haunted stare. And Kate Jennings Grant steps nimbly through Bette’s distracted monologues, gradually adding depth until her nonsensical prattling seems pitiful and real.
The only adult who treats Matt with any warmth is his aunt Emily. She is devoutly religious and, not coincidentally, quite childish: wracked by guilt, hyper-conscientious, lacking all perspective, and devoid of humor. “Dopey Emily,” Bette sighs. “She means well.” Emily takes everyone else’s pain on herself, caring for Margaret in her dotage and nursing Bette as she is dying of cancer. By this point, Matt has discovered that intelligence and perseverance can’t help him escape his family’s pain. He rejects religion, too, because it fails to prevent suffering, and even seems to provoke it. But dopey, well-meaning Emily is faithful to the end, praying, “We place ourselves in Your hands.” Matt may not consider that a wise decision, but in the play’s final moments he seems to accept that faith is as good a response to suffering as he is likely to find.
When Sister Mary Ignatius’s students complain that their lives are unhappy, she answers, “Yes, but eventually there’s death. And then everlasting happiness in heaven.” Confronted with the overwhelming bleakness of Bette and Boo, even that diminished creed can offer something like hope. Of course, living as if it were true is very impractical, but then—as the Infant of Prague said to someone—the divine always is.
Pictured: Heather Burns, Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam LeFevre, Victoria Clark, Kate Jennings Grant, Christopher Evan Welch, Julie Hagerty, and John Glover in The Marriage of Bette & Boo. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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