Union Dues

Like the union of the two main characters in The Marriage of Bette and Boo, the Bug Theatre Company's production is a hauntingly sad, absurdly comic look at domestic strife that lasts a little too long for its own good. Pacing and structural problems notwithstanding, director Donna Morrison's version sometimes makes Christopher Durang's play seem as compelling as it is off-the-wall.

In fact, some of the performers manage to lend the production a depth that's lacking in the playwright's hit-and-miss script. That's especially true of Feloniz Salas's compassionate, double-edged portrayal of Emily, an awkward, cello-toting girl who has a hard time making the necessary adjustments from adolescence to adulthood. Radiating an inner beauty that belies her plaid-skirt-and-pigtails gangliness, Salas invests each of her too-brief scenes with an unguarded innocence that dooms Emily to a spirit-crushing stay in the loony bin. Throughout, Salas artfully negotiates an emotional high-wire, alternating between the sort of comic mania and tragic hopelessness that portend a nervous breakdown.

If only the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour production was as arrestingly ambivalent -- or even, at times, mildly entertaining -- as its start. As the action progresses, we learn from Emily's nephew, Matt (Matthew Howard), that the play is actually his (and, supposedly, Durang's) autobiography. During a series of flashback scenes -- framed by a slew of references to Thomas Hardy novels that only get in the way -- Matt interacts with his parents, Bette (Amanda Kay Berg) and Boo (Heston Gray), in an attempt to answer the burning question: "Did you intend to live your lives the way you did?" However, Matt's probing into his Catholic upbringing and unstable home life doesn't involve the audience as much as it consumes the playwright.

By the middle of Act Two, the external forces that shape personality have clearly been powerful enough to render Matt's entire family a pile of dysfunctional wreckage. But rather than tidy up the play's loose ends in a timely fashion, Durang draws out his bloodless harangue for another thirty or so minutes. And even though the character of Matt teeters on the edge of breaking down himself, Howard doesn't inject much emotion into the part, preferring instead to assume an air of detachment that, however sardonic, keeps the audience uncomfortably at bay.

On the brighter side, Berg matures into an alluring and complex Bette after rushing through her first couple of scenes. Gray hits his stride as the alcoholic Boo when, proud that he's stayed sober for a while, he interprets Matt's sappy grin as hero-worship instead of an obvious sign that his son is simply following Dad's lifelong, drunken example. And both Bethany Perkins and Lisa Rosenhagen craft believable portraits of the two mother figures who rely on a mixture of denial and deadpan humor to survive familial woes.

All in all, though, the production's more interesting episodes take on lives of their own -- a few funny lines here, some hilarious moments there -- instead of adding up to a darkly comic or reasonably succinct point of view about the hazards of growing up amid those harsh and unfeeling creatures known as relatives.

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Jim Lillie

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