There's what you might call "dim comedy," like Common Ground Theatre's A Trailer Park Christmas. There's dark comedy, like Honest Pint Theatre Company's Annapurna. There's black comedy, like Theatre in the Park and Manbites Dog's The Pillowman.
And then there's Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo.
Though the playwright's early, semiautobiographical portrait of a bad marriage suffered from some uneven performances in its first outing, under director Jonathan McCarter at North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre, it merited study by any quantum physicists in the audience. It's a black-hole comedy, and at times, few laughs can escape from the gravity and gravitas of its event horizon.
As playwright David Lindsay-Abaire achieved in Fuddy Meers, and filmmaker Todd Solondz attempted less successfully in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Durang looks hard for humorous transcendence—or at least fleeting comic relief—in dark domestic moments, including yelling matches between the titular, woefully mismatched couple and hellish holiday gatherings that unmask the cruelty of parents, siblings and in-laws.
The darkest moments of all? A series of stillbirths following the arrival of Matt, Bette and Boo's firstborn son, who also serves as the play's narrator. Durang tries to turn them into a running gag of sorts—an improbable, ghastly version of the old Lucy-with-the-football joke from the Peanuts comic strips.
This brand of humor is not for all tastes. It was bemusing to hear some audience members openly debating whether or not to leave during intermission, and indeed, not all made it back. It was their loss, though not because Durang's dysfunctional crew finds sudden redemption—or indeed, much of any kind.
Bette's mother, Margaret (a fine Elaine Quagliata) stays as vinegary as ever, still locked in a grudge match with Bette's sister Joan (a slow-burning Laura Levine). Emily (a convincing Lauren Knott), Bette's other sister, remains the human doormat, eagerly taking on the sins—and, even weirder, the birthing pains—of the world. Boo's father, Karl (Houston Horn, clearly a beginner), stays mean to his mom, Soot (Tonita Hamilton, still learning). Instead, an older Matt (Danny Mullins), whose attempts to analyze his family's dilemmas sound at first like an undergraduate's bad English Lit essay, finds distance, perspective and some empathy. By the end, he realizes he has witnessed a disaster across two generations.
With its jackknife snark and sardonic sarcasm, The Marriage of Bette and Boo initially seems unlikely to break our hearts. But the undying, unfounded hopes its characters cling to so tenaciously are sobering. In actor Liz Webb's sterling performance, the chirpy Bette remains blindly optimistic, believing that, through sheer will, she can bear more children and that Boo (a less experienced Ryan Ladue) will finally stop drinking. Boo thinks Bette will return after their separation. Emily thinks she'll finally find true forgiveness if she just keeps apologizing.
The true human tragedy is the inability to change, learn or grow—the impossibility of any outcome other than the one that confronts us in every mirror. Those thoughts, which I once wrote about Tennessee Williams' oeuvre, apply here all too well. As Bette redoubles her dogged efforts at domestic fulfillment, one thinks of Sisyphus heading back down the hill to his stone, or Lucy setting up the ol' pigskin to give Charlie Brown another go.
Ultimately, the joke's on us. But really, you do have to laugh.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Black hole son."