Just when you think it's safe to go to the theater, Christopher Durang shows up somewhere and disturbs all your complacencies. Brilliant, amusing, incisive and ultimately humane, Durang's caustic assessments of American life and Catholic upbringing manage to undermine even the most insistent optimism. Cattlecall Productions' appallingly funny The Marriage of Bette and Boo, now at the Theatre at Muddy's, is another of Durang's indictments of the human condition--and one of the most vigorous productions in town.

The story is narrated by Skippy, the only surviving son of Bette and Boo. As the story opens, Skippy is contemplating suicide because his family is such a mess. In an attempt to understand his parents and himself, he decides to reconstruct the events of his family's life. We see his mother and father marry; at first they move like mechanical figures on a German clock, but as the play goes on they take on more and more human characteristics. By the end of the play, they're entirely natural.

Getting to the end, however, means a trip through the narrator's convoluted memory. We see Skippy through his childhood, during which his father drinks, his mother scolds and the little boy covers his ears. We endure his mother's four other pregnancies--all of which end in stillbirths. Bette's insistence on having more children becomes a pathetic kind of vice. Each new infant death comes as a blow to everyone, though Boo's drinking habit is well-entrenched before the babies start dying. Bette's poor nervous sister even thinks the deaths are God's punishment for her decision to leave the convent. Skippy's aunts, meanwhile, are crazy or bitter, his mother alternately sweet and vindictive, his mother's mother a controlling monster and his father's mother a doormat for her husband's cruel abuse.

By the end of the play, Skippy has experienced nearly all the emotional turmoil anyone could hope to see in a dysfunctional family. Luckily, Durang's blackly humorous take keeps all the tragedy in perspective. Derek R. Munson's sharp direction and the inspired cast he has assembled underscore Durang's tortured perceptions with luminous wit.

Catherine DiBella as Bette lines her wide-eyed innocence with acid, so that underneath the layers of sentimentality we can feel the bent ego of a deluded woman--and still care what happens to her. Munson himself plays Skippy with such elegant intelligence that we watch him move from cold disdain to compassion without ever feeling the jolt of the change. The actress Bucy plays the asthmatic and fragile sister with an astonishing depth that makes her the warmest presence on stage. Rob DeSpain is appealing as the cross-eyed drunk Boo, while Kelly Flink, Mike Kilman, Patricia Anne Madsen, J. Roberta Hoover and James Mills work together to ice the ensemble cake with perfect pink poison. Christopher Whyde in particular gives the fatuous Father Donnally a manic edge that opens up new views of that character's beastliness.

Dysfunctional families crop up so often in the American theater that they practically constitute a genre. In these teeth-clenching dramas, iron-fisted self-will drives husbands and wives to the brink of madness, cruelty begets cruelty, and family members don't so much act as they react against each other's faults and sensitivities. Durang's protagonist, though, tries to learn from his family's mistakes--and to penetrate the mystery of how one can live with and love others. The playwright's compassion is made obvious here by Munson's sterling direction. But as hilarious and insightful as the play is, Durang is locked into his own blind assumptions, mainly having to do with the inevitability of suffering in family relationships. He offers no clue as to what might make life on earth more liveable. And that is the real tragedy of The Marriage of Bette and Boo.


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