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"The Marriage of Bette and Boo": dark view of a dysfunctional family

By Bernie Krumm, Special to the Chronicle

Hofstra's production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, the Drama Department's first show of the season, debuted Saturday, October 1. From what I had heard about Christopher Durang's award winning play, the show promised to be an unapologetic and darkly comical look at a dysfunctional family and how they fall apart over the course of many years. As I watched the performance I felt that, while it nailed one part, the rest was hit or miss.  

Christopher Durang's absurdist play examines the relationship of Bette (Kim Hughes) and Boo (John Vincent Bahrenburg), a young couple whose marriage falls apart over the course of many years. Part of the reason why it is considered an absurdist play is it's presentation, as it consists of 33 short scenes so, like the memories of our childhood, they come back to us in a series of brief spurts rather than long, drawn out recollections. Adding to the absurdity is dropping of Bette's stillborn children by an unsympathetic doctor, the inaudible mumblings of Bette's helpless father, and Bette's one sister threatening the other with a kitchen knife. The playwright creates characters one would normally see in a play about a dysfunctional family. You have an alcoholic father, a suffocating mother and relatives who range from extremely neurotic to verbally abusive. From drunken rants to chaotic arguments, nothing is out of the ordinary as far as dysfunction goes. However, the playwright exaggerates these traits so as to make these characters seem utterly hopeless, and most of them go the entire play without coming to a realization. This may seem like a hyperbole, but life is filled with people who live their lives without ever become self aware.

This production is directed by Royston Coppenger who directed the remarkable adaptation of The War of the Roses during last years Shakespeare Festival. The set design is very basic. Lacking in intricacy, this very typical setting could easily be anyone's home. From a practical standpoint, it allows an easy transition between a living room, a church retreat and a hospital waiting room. The design theme is highly expressionist, with the mood of the characters affecting their surroundings. With every few scenes, the characters dissemble the scenery; a metaphor for a broken home. The slamming of chairs, spilling of gravy and collapsing of dead relatives goes a long way to add to the concept.

Flashing lights accompany the more heated scenes between the characters.

The performers at points take part in the design, as they make a honeymoon bed for Bette and Boo and also set the scene for a night of dancing at a Jazz club. This productions flaw seems to lie in the overacting and lack of comic timing of some of the shows performers. While this may add to the blunt nature that is intended, the comic element of the play suffers as a result and some of the more clever lines of the play are thrown away. Credit Tyler Pardini who, as Father Donnelly, takes full advantage of the source material and provides a majority of the shows most lines. A standout among the performers is Matt Engle, who portrays Matt, Bette and Boo's only surviving son, as a detached narrator. Some would consider his portrayal too unfeeling but it is very believable that he would emotionally separate himself from his uneven home life. The actors who portray Bette and Boo are able to balance their characters damaging behaviors with more appealing qualities. Despite the shows mediocre execution of its humor, the show succeeds in bluntly capturing the chaotic and hostile environment of a dysfunctional family.

(Courtesy of Kaitlin Donelon)

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