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Glenda Frank

"The Marriage of Bette and Boo" by Christopher Durang. Directed by Walter Bobbie.
At the Laura Pels Theatre, Roundabout: 111 W. 46 St. NYC.
June 12 – Sept. 7, 2008.
Tues.-Sat. at 7:30 PM; Wed, Sat. and Sun. at 2 PM.
Tickets: $63.75-73.75.
(212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org.

Pioneers built our country. They settled the land, explored the galaxy, created jazz, and founded corporations on a shoestring in their garages. These visionaries saw the ladder, climbed the first rungs – and sometimes, like Eugene O'Neill and Jonas Salk, they become the benchmarks. In 1985, when "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" premiered, Christopher Durang had audiences rolling in the aisles as they tossed away their rose-colored glasses to look with cynical eyes at the American family and Catholicism, topics that had been taboo as satire on the American stage. The play earned Durang an Obie and Obies for cast; "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" is very actor-friendly. But the Roundabout Theatre Company revival, directed by Walter Bobbie, is more a walk down memory lane than a compelling comedy.

In 33 scenes, Durang tracks Bette and Boo from marriage to Bette's death. The grandparents, aunts, and a priest have more than their share of eccentricities, enough to keep the scenes lively and comical. Matt (Charles Socarides), Bette and Boo's son, is the narrator. At the premiere, Durang himself played Matt, and the play is often read as autobiographical.

The Roundabout Theatre was generous. The performances and production values are impressive. The scenes are set on a fire-engine red lacquered stage with sliding walls so we see the Thanksgiving fiasco full stage but Matt's intimate dinner with his dad half stage (David Korins, design). Lighting often sets the scene, as in the church we see the shadows of a stained glass window on a wall (Donald Holder, design). Susan Hilferty's period costumes add more dimension to the characters – a pastel palette to establish family values yet attractive styling to show taste and class.

The performances are all winning and some are exceptional. Julie Hagerty as Soot, Boo's mom with the strange nickname, found the comic heart and hits a bull's eye in every scene. Heather Burns is delicious and touching as Emily, the fluttery, guilt-ridden aunt. The stage lights up (and lightened) every time she appears. Father Donnally's (Terry Beaver) imitation of a slice of bacon frying is a highpoint. Christopher Evan Welch as Boo, Victoria Clark as Bette's mom, Kate Jennings Grant as Bette, Adam Lefevre as Bette's mumbling dad are in top form.

Walter Bobbie's choices have a light touch. The characters, lined up across the stage, open each act with a song: "Here Comes the Bride" and "20 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." In less jokey moments, they line up again to await the birth of Bette's children. This could be clever comedy, especially when this routine is subverted by tragedy as the children are born dead and hilarity turns to poignancy. But the routines are overused with only minor variations – in the direction and the script. By the end you know the punch line even before the joke begins. Rather than laughter, you are left with the dull thud of the dead baby on the floor as the doctor telegraphs his news.

After you've seen a few evenings of "Married with Children" (1988) and "Roseanne" (1987), television shows that would not have been possible without Durang's courage and invention, you return to the comedy wanting more complexity in the characters, more variety and suspense. In the 20 years since the premiere, we have grown closer to these damaged characters, who were once just cartoons. We don't necessarily like them – there is too little of them to like – but we share their pain, and the play offers little catharsis.

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