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THEATER REVIEW : A Tough Act : 'Bette and Boo' is not actors' showcase material or 'entertainment' for audiences, and it is very difficult to do right.

July 30, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

Staging Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," as the American Renegade Theatre in North Holly wood is doing now, is exactly the kind of gesture Valley theater needs.

It is neither showcase material for the actors to show agents, nor is it friendly material tailored to patrons' hunger for "entertainment." It is not nearly one of Durang's better known works; in other words, both the jollier "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You" and the more farcical "Beyond Therapy" were passed by for this infinitely sadder and more resonant play.

It is also terribly difficult to do right. Even worse for this new edition, we have the fairly fresh memory of a superb staging--Dennis Erdman's in 1989 at L. A. Theatre Center--that reminds what was best about that theater and Durang.

In fact, these may all be reasons for a rational San Fernando Valley theater company not to do "Bette and Boo" and opt for the safe choices that dominate local theater programming. So, you have to be happy with the choice, if not director Allan Katzman's way with the play.

The same kind of icy, ironical distance Durang imposed on himself in writing this comic tragedy about his own family life must be practiced by the director, or "Bette and Boo" loses its purpose. That is because the marriage, ultimate decay and divorce of Bette (Elizabeth Jaeger) and Boo (Joe Gargiulo) is described to us by their narrating son Matt (Danny Lippin)--Durang, in surrogate form. Matt is forever telling a scene as he wishes it to have been, or retelling it, or refusing to give us the straight chronological order of events. If families don't behave, goes the reasoning, then why should the families' narrators?

A messy play, then, for a messy clan. Bette's mother (Ann Gibbs) is happiest when her grown-up children are forced by circumstances to move back home. Her father (Clancy Halsey) can only mumble, grunt and groan. One of her sisters (Taylor Phillips' Joan) is irascibly jealous that Bette even has a husband, while the other (Tracy Katz's Emily) is too traumatized by Catholic guilt to know the difference.

Boo's mother (Sheryl Mary Lewis) is utterly cowed by her crude, beastly husband (Michael Leopard), a slob who even nice, sweet Bette comes to blows with. And the priest for both families (Paul Roache) smokes on the job and turns "retreats" for young newlyweds into a chance to do his impersonation of bacon frying.

Durang's hate is where his mirth is, and he writes things in a kind of high-velocity musical time signature. Director Katzman keeps everything together, and all of his actors generally know where they are in this cartoonish universe. But he doesn't adhere to the time signature, and too many of the scenes end up sounding maudlin and tragic.

These people are just that, of course (Bette ends up in a cancer ward and Boo drinks himself nearly brain-dead), but Durang doesn't allow us the chance to mull things over on that level. Katzman's less-than-taut staging does, though, and it nearly unravels the play. His slow approach makes no more sense than acting Wallace Shawn in sotto voce or Sam Shepard as a sitcom.

The exception is the calm at the storm's center, Lippin's observant Matt, who nevertheless has his own obsessions. Lippin provides both a firm center and a living narrative spine. (But, where, one wonders, did Matt get his own inner spine?) Jaeger captures Bette's sense of right and wrong, but not her caricatured identity as wifely victim and Catholic flagellant. Indeed, the caricatures aren't nearly broad enough here, from Phillips' Joan and Katz's Emily to Lewis' Soot and Roache's priest. Leopard's Karl is frightening, and would be even more in a naturalistic play.

But this isn't a naturalistic play, a fact especially lost on Gargiulo's oddly tough-guy approach to Boo (though not on Katzman as his own set designer and Jeff Calderon on lights). But it shouldn't be lost on anyone that a Valley theater like American Renegade, in order to matter at all these days, has to keep doing work like this--even if it means doing it wrong for a while.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "The Marriage of Bette and Boo."

Location: American Renegade Theatre, 11305 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays.

Price: $10 to $12.

Call: (213) 660-8587.

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