During my senior year in college, my friend Eric, the most ambitious boy in our theater department, wrote a play about his family for his year-end project and invited his parents to come and see it. He apparently neglected to tell them exactly what to expect because I happened to sit behind them and his mother sobbed dolefully the whole way through as he not only aired all their dirty laundry but poked fun at each piece.
Wrenching family dramas were, of course, a mainstay of the theater long before my pal Eric wrote his but while playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had been rueful, almost melodramatic, about the failings of their elders, baby boomers like Eric took another approach. Suckled on post-War existentialism and plumped up with treatises about the “absurdity” of modern life like Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” these younger writers took to heart the old adage about laughing to keep from crying and turned out intentionally outrageous works that may have reduced their elders to tears but seemed hilarious to them and their peers.
Eric and his mom kept popping into my head as I watched the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new revival of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Christopher Durang’s absurdist and semi-autobiographical play about his Roman-Catholic family. Durang, now 59, wrote the early drafts of his play while he was still a student at the Yale School of Drama in the 1970s. In what eventually became a series of 33 brief scenes, he charts the unhappiness in his parents’ marriage, which, despite including alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, cancer, senility and four stillbirths, is played largely as comedy.
I didn’t see the original production when it was done at the Public Theater in 1985 with Durang playing the stage version of his younger self in a cast that included Joan Allen, Mercedes Ruehl and Olympia Dukakis (click here to read Durang’s memories of that production on his informative website) and so I don’t know what the audience response was like back then but it was uneasy at the performance I attended this past Saturday night.
You can’t blame the new production. The current cast—lead by Kate Jennings Grant as Bette and Christopher Evan Welch as Boo, with Victoria Clark, John Glover and Julie Hagerty among their loopy relatives—is top-notch, Walter Bobbie directs them in an appropriately snappy fashion and I enjoyed the production (click here to read Durang's thoughts on the revival). But my fellow audience members seemed uncomfortable about laughing at the family’s tribulations—particularly about the dead babies. Several people left at intermission, although you’d have thought that, unlike my friend Eric’s parents, they knew what they were getting into.
Maybe it’s that times have changed. The grey heads in the audience are now more likely to be baby boomers than their parents. And with age, particularly for those of us who have raised our own kids, may have come the ability to be more forgiving about parental foibles that once would have been regarded as laugh-out-loud absurd.
Every family has its stories—and many of them mix tragedy and comedy. That’s obvious at any wake. But nowadays we tend to want to laugh with, rather than at, the subjects of those stories. Which may be why August: Osage County is such a hit and Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate is coming to Broadway this fall. Their families are just as dysfunctional and foolish as Bette and Boo’s but they’re viewed with less irony and more compassion. Which is something Eric’s mother probably would have appreciated.
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