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Robert Brustein On Theater: Combating Amnesia

The Marriage of Bette and Boo
by Christopher Durang

Miss Universal Happiness
by Richard Foreman

During his brief sojourn in the Sunday pages of The New York Times, the English drama critic Benedict Nightingale indicted a central strain of current American drama as "diaper plays," by which he meant works that ignored the urgencies of the political and social world, focusing instead on a surrogate hero's problems with his parents. It was a fundamental criticism of recent American play writing from which only Mamet, Rabe, and Sam Shepard (and not always they) were spared, and it suggested that most of our younger writers were stuck at some premature, essentially narcissistic stage of development.

At the time, the name of Christopher Durang, whose last childhood trauma play was culpably called Baby with the Bathwater, stood high among those accused of an infantile obsession with dirty nappies. But while I agreed with Nightingale's general observations on the regression of much American play writing (even Durang's celebrated Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You was a fantasy revenge exacted for humiliations experienced during childhood), something troubled me about Nightingale's inclusion of this domestic satirist, and not just because of my personal affection for a former student. After seeing Durang's masterly The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Public Theater, Ithink I know what it is. Bette and Boo isanother anguished comedy about growing up in a demented household, but ifthis is a "diaper play," then so is A Long Day's Journey into Night.

It is not entirely frivolous to citeO'Neill when discussing Durang, forboth are Catholic writers who knowthat the past is the present, thatuntil you understand your personal history you will be doomed to repeat theerrors of your parents. Nor is thissubject without political implications. Itsuggests how we can elect a Reaganafter suffering a Nixon, how we cancontemplate intervention in Nicaraguaafter failure in Vietnam, how we canagain neglect our poor, how Bitburgis possible after Buchenwald. TheAmerican amnesia regarding the pastspreads over every aspect of our lives,our political blunders being bred firstnot in the political womb of a societythat ignores its own history but in theunexamined transactions of parentsand children.

Milan Kundera has said that the primary struggle of the artist against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting; he was not just referring to totalitarianism. Durang has learned from bitter experience how closely domestic amnesia and political amnesia are linked. Facing an effort generated by religious groups (including the Anti-Defamation League!) to suppress Sister Mary, he has recently become an advocate of another traditional memory in danger of being forgotten, the First Amendment rights. Perhaps this explains why a new poignancy has entered his work in The Marriage of Bette and Boo, with no loss of cutting edge. An expanded version of a short play produced when he was a drama student at Yale, Bette and Boo is a remorselessly sad, achingly funny assault on the vanities, inanities, and insanities of family life, as seen from the cool, vaguely lobotomized perspective of a college student steeped in Thomas Hardy.

It's safe to say that Durang (who plays the part in this production) bears some resemblance to that student, and that the family depicted in the play shares some qualities with his own. But whereas O'Neill entered his past in order to lay his ghosts to rest, Durang, though engaged in similar acts of absolution, has not yet enacted that rite of exorcism. The play vibrates with absurdist satire, all the more funny for being true, and bitter recriminations, all the more savage for being unresolved. At the center is Bette, the mother, like her own mother passionate for children, and the father, Boo (short for Bore), a drunk like his father before him. At the opening curtain, they are married to the strains of composer Richard Peaslee's stained glass chorale, as Boo's father throws rice in his face. Boo's father is a cheerfully cruel man (his wife, Soot, he calls "the dumbest white woman alive"), while Bette's father is a zombie whose speech defect is an outrage to his family ("I've asked you not to speak—we can't understand you").

Their first child is Matt, the narrator, nicknamed Skippy because Bette loved the movie. When the doctor brings him in, he is dropped on the floor: "It's dead, the baby's dead." Matt survives ("Oh, you're right, it's not dead. You have a son"), but a series of five more infants, born dead, are successively pitched to the floor. Bette is RH negative and Boo is RH positive; the incompatibility of their blood groups effectively symbolizes their relationship. At a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner. Boo drunkenly spills gravy all over the rug and enrages Bette by trying to vacuum it up. Nevertheless, Bette, congenitally kindernknarr—she loves babies more than people and names all the dead infants after characters in Winnie the Pooh—simply can't repress her desire to increase and multiply, and neither physician nor priest nor psychological counselor can stay these stillborn couriers from their appointed rounds.

Impassive, detached, Matt manages the chronological narrative, acting as a Brechtian legend board, analyzing Hardy's The Return of the Native, listing his favorite nun movies ("The Nun Also Rises," "Nun But the Lonely Heart," "The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance"), and otherwise trying to keep his distance from the encircling lunacy. His father. Boo, falling on and off the wagon throughout the play, makes desultory efforts to communicate with his son, which inevitably end in failure. Finally, some years after Bette has filed for divorce, she contracts cancer, followed by chemotherapy, prayer, even Christian stoicism, which she rejects ("I don't think God punishes people for specific things; I think he punishes people in general for no reason"). When Boo comes to visit, Bette remembers the past ("All the dead babies," to which Boo responds, "Yes, we had some good times"). Bette endures a spasm of pain, cheerful as ever, then quietly expires, after which Matt's requiem imagines her united with her unborn babies in a place where she waits for Boo, for all the dead Pooh children, "and for me."

It is an oddly touching coda after such satiric chaos and anarchic disorder. Durang has earned it by subtly weaving threads of genuine emotion through the pattern of his comic non sequiturs and absurdist turns. All of his characters are quite mad, yet somehow not without appeal. Even Matt's brutal paternal grandfather enjoys his moment of twisted redemption ("Don't try to change anybody—if you don't like them, be mean to them"). The Marriage of Bette and Boo, for all its anger and reproaches, is suffused with an aura of understated forgiveness, and it is this element that seems to me new in Durang's work.

The cast assembled at the Public Theater and the production are perfect—American theater at its best. Jerry Azks, an ideal Durang interpreter, has directed the play with exactly the right wash of zaniness without neglecting

 he darker colors of its grim reality, and Loren Sherman's design scheme—a series of rolling panels revealing successive locations—provides the evening with pace and fluidity. As Bette and Boo, Joan Allen and Graham Beckel enact the quintessential union of hysteria and dopiness, their marriage doomed not by any of the usual foibles but by invincible shallowness and armor-plated stupidity. Bill Moor, as Boo's callously indifferent father ("1 never wanted much from life. I wanted to get my way in everything, and that's about all"), and the brilliant Olympia Dukakis, her blond hair piled atop her head like a mud pie, playing his bubble-headed mother. Soot ("I think I'm going deaf—God, I hope so"), enact another kind of American marriage, that of brutal master and dumb slave. Patricia Falkenhain plays Bette's mother, looking like Diana Trilling stoned on Methedrine, and Bill McCutcheon, as Bette's father, manages to amuse without pronouncing a single coherent word. (He is equally amusing after he has died from an indigestible slice of birthday pie, and sits on stage with a sheet thrown over his head.) Splendid also are Kathryn Grody and Mercedes Ruehl as Bette's sisters, the one forever on the edge of breakdown, the other always on the verge of parturition. And finally there is Durang as Matt, the cherubic innocent with curare on his fingernails, desperately trying to find some strategy for coping with an incomprehensible world, as he remorselessly proceeds to chronicle its deliriums.

The Marriage of Bette and Boo is a significant advance for its author. All of Durang's works (excepting Beyond Therapy, his only screwball comedy) have been satires built on a mound of pain, but Bette and Boo represents a greater effort to leaven this pain with understanding. As such, it is just as American as the poisoned apple pie that kills the maternal grandfather of the play and, for all its domestic venom, just as universal in its appeal.

Richard Foreman's new piece for the Wooster Group, Miss Universal Happiness, on the other hand, belies its title. Nothing in the work suggests any recognizably shared experience, happy or otherwise. Foreman continues to be maddening in the way he puts the most original theatrical inventions—and there are those who find him unmatched in his control of space and movement—in service to the most arcane theatrical intentions. It's like Mayakovsky gone berserk with a text of undeciphered hieroglyphics. Located in a setting strewn with found objects—hanging clocks, silhouettes, monster drawings, naked light bulbs—the action starts with a scream, followed by a narrator explaining how his lead-lined raincoat protects him from all ambiguities or obscure references. (It doesn't, unfortunately, protect the audience equally well.) Bells ring; lunatics start chewing pillows; strobe lights and deafening rock music reverberate through the room, making us feel imprisoned in a Dada torture chamber with aural drills applied to the eyes, ears, and feet. The Rhoda figure in this noisy madhouse (usually played by Kate Mannheim, here by Kate Valk) appears in the guise of Miss Universal Happiness, besieged by Central American guerrillas: "The outside of my experience," she informs us, "is like a cylinder; the inside is like a cube." Occasionally a more coherent sentence breaks through the murk ("The self for which you search is inside you") but usually we are in the grip of a flippant, manic, calisthenic imagination that seems totally random in its expression, possessed by a profligate whimsicality.

The Central American setting, the terrorist costumes, the repeated references to the word "rebellion," suggest that Foremati has a political idea up his sleeve, but the piece is so totally lacking in context, so private in its imagery and symbolism, that it ends up as a solipsism. I have always assumed that it was domestic drama that cast the audience as Peeping Toms, and experimental theater that tried to engage it. But if I left Durang's play at the Public feeling part of a community, I fled the Foreman piece at the Performing Garage feeling like a voyeur.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.