"Way beyond comedy" is where actor Christopher Evan Welch places Christopher Durang's 1985 play The Marriage of Bette and Boo
, which opens in a Roundabout Theatre revival in early July, with Welch in the co-titular role of Boo. Audiences who've come to see previews of the revival, directed by Walter Bobbie, are likely to agree with him.
"People seem to be coming to previews expecting a lot more farce and a lot less tragedy," says Welch, who has built a solid reputation as a fearless and often funny Off-Broadway actor in such plays as Ivo Van Hove's groundbreaking A Streetcar Named Desire
, Bruce Norris' The Pain and the Itch
and Theresa Rebeck's The Scene
. "If you just know Durang from Beyond Therapy
or Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You
, you won't have any idea what's coming."
To wit: Though The Marriage of Bette and Boo
has a bright comic surface, it deals with family dysfunction of outsized proportions. Bette, played by Kate Jennings Grant, has multiple stillbirths, while Mr. Welch's Boo is a helpless, poorly adjusted alcoholic. As Welch explains, it's based on Durang's own parents.
"He says it's only slightly exaggerated, and that's jaw-dropping in itself," Welch marvels. "I mean, everyone's got a screwed-up family; my parents are divorced. But with Chris, it's almost overwhelming how screwed-up his family is. When all this was going on, a classmate told him, 'You have to write this down.' "
Among the play's challenges is to create a consistent world, since the real-life domestic cataclysms recalled by Durang aren't just a bit exaggerated--they're also stylized and refracted by memory.
"He has such a specific voice, and this is his most personal play," Welch says of Durang. "So it's tricky. It's a group process; it's not so much a personal process. It's about reading the play together and making sure we're all in the same world.
"For Kate and I, it's even a little trickier; we have to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting," Welch says. "It's up to Bette and Boo to go through all the stillbirths and alcoholism and brutality. But it's all told through the haze of how Skippy remembers his childhood, so we're playing the memory of Skip, but also the reality of the people. It's almost a psychedelic approach."
According to Welch--who, incidentally, performed in the Seattle-based rock band The Ottoman Bigwigs
during his post-grad years in Washington state--he wouldn't want it any other way.
"It works--you can feel it," Welch effuses. "You can feel the suckerpunch; there's an audible oof in the audience. People are affected by it, sort of stunned, shell-shocked. It's not the reaction that Spamalot
Indeed, according to Welch, it's more important than ever that major theatres shake things up a bit.
"If big regional theatres are going to do a revival, let it be a revival of something dark and strange like this," Welch says. "There are always going to be people this play is too weird for, but I think the best thing to do right now is challenge people and make them think. It's almost beholden on theatres to challenge their audiences, to ask them, in effect: 'Did you just come to sit here and smile and agree, or did you come here to be challenged to think about things?' That's why the success of things like August: Osage County
and Passing Strange
is such a big deal."
Though Welch says that preview audiences have been appreciated, his description of an ideal opening-night audience may not be a producer's dream, to say the least.
"I love it when at the end of the show half of the audience is standing and applauding, and half are sitting there with their arms crossed. It feels like you're part of something volatile and alive, not just pabulum--something that's not just there to make you smile.
"At the end of this show, people are very moved and shaken by it. This isn't a show where friends can just come backstage and say, 'Wow, fantastic!' I've had friends come backstage afterwards and go, 'Whoa… Let me think about this one.' "
Lest it all seem unrelentingly bleak, the play does end on a note of forgiveness and optimism.
"It's about surviving that cycle, and becoming stronger because of your screwed-up family," Welch says. "Their unhappiness has to sow something better in the world. By the end, the lead character has found some level of peace and strength because of the lessons of his forebears. But you don't go out humming the tunes."
Click here for more information about The Marriage of Bette and Boo.