Bette, Boo and Bobbie

Special Features   Bette, Boo and Bobbie Walter Bobbie directs a revival of Christopher Durang's dark comedy, The Marriage of Bette and Boo.
Walter Bobbie
Walter Bobbie Photo by Aubrey Reuben

*

That happily hyphenated director–actor, Walter Bobbie, arrived on Broadway in the latter capacity — for one performance only — in Frank Merriwell. In his second Main Stem sighting, he went completely unsighted, standing by for Russ Thacker all five days of The Grass Harp. But the third time's the charm, and on Valentine's Day of 1972 he started cooking with Grease. It has been love at third sight from then on.

"I was the original Roger, the mooning champ of Rydell High," he says, still with some measure of pride. A year or so into Grease, he was joined onstage by Jerry Zaks, who came in from the national company to play Kenickie. The friendship that they subsequently struck up has profoundly affected both of Bobbie's careers.

He and Zaks have zigzagged their way through theatre ever since. Their most recent example of path-crossing is The Marriage of Bette and Boo: Zaks did the first version that originally lifted off at The Public in 1985; now, Bobbie is doing its first New York revival, currently at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre.

Not that Bobbie was eager to follow Zaks' act. "I was timid about doing it," he admits. "I thought Jerry did a brilliant job — some of the finest work he's ever done — but I also thought it an important play. I fully expected it to win the Pulitzer Prize and move to Broadway. That didn't happen, but my admiration of it never dimmed." Indeed, it reignited — with two Roundabout readings: the first for a patrons evening with a fancy cast (Tyne Daly, Sigourney Weaver, James Naughton) and the second a month or so later as a round-the-table session "to make sure we understood how to approach the play.

"When I realized it would work, I called Jerry and said, 'Look, I don't want you to read about this in the papers — and I don't think there's something you didn't find in the play — but I'm going to do it.' He said, 'God bless you. You're a mensch for calling.'"

Risk-taking goes with the friendship. Until Zaks cast Bobbie as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, we all thought of this character only in rounded Stubby Kaye/Ken Page terms; Bobbie brought goofy gregariousness to the part(y).

During the run, Zaks also altered Bobbie's career objective: "Jerry gave me a three-week leave of absence to direct this little revue at Rainbow & Stars." Powered by Rodgers and Hammerstein evergreens, "this little revue" — A Grand Night for Singing — spilled over into a Roundabout run, wound up Tony-nominated and set up Bobbie to head City Center's consistently superior Encores! series of concerts. The first Encores! show he directed "was Fiorello!," he says, "and, of course, I asked Jerry to play the title role."

His most inspired idea as artistic director came while watching the O.J. circus/trial on TV: to revive Kander & Ebb's Chicago. From five Encores! performances it moved to Broadway, where it is still going strong after more than 4,800 performances. It also got him Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Director of a Musical in 1997.

Bobbie left Encores! in 1996, but remains on its advisory committee and sometimes surfaces in his two-hatted fashion; he was directing as recently as the delightful No, No, Nanette and, as an actor, putting on his happy sitcom-pop face for Bye Bye Birdie.

David Ives, who has made peppy and presentable many a tattered libretto for the Encores! series, brought Bobbie back to the dramatic (or, at least, nonmusical) arena earlier this year Off-Broadway with his New Jerusalem, a heady affair about the 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. It is to be upgraded to Broadway next spring.

Kate Jennings Grant, Heather Burns and Victoria Clark on Bobbie's staging of ...Bette and Boo.
photo by Joan Marcus

Seconding this somber emotion is what Bobbie describes as "a hilarious tragedy" — The Marriage of Bette and Boo, with Kate Jennings Grant and Christopher Evan Welch in the title roles and Charles Socarides as the fruit of their loins, standing alongside this wedding picture, narrating the troubles ahead. In the wedding party are John Glover, Julie Hagerty, Victoria Clark, Adam Lefevre, Heather Burns, Zoe Lister-Jones and Terry Beaver.

Walter Bobbie with Christopher Durang
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Christopher Durang rattled his own family tree to get this achingly sad-and-silly assault on the vanities, insanities and inanities of domestic life. As if his text weren't soul-bearing enough, in the original production — at Joe Papp's urging — he found himself literally and physically bearing witness to his parents' deteriorating dreams. The fact that Durang can't — thank God! — go home again cued Bobbie to his approach. "I didn't want to see Chris, at this point in his life, playing scenes with a father 20 years younger. This role exists in the early part of the man's life. The issues he addresses are the issues of a young man and a younger playwright. With someone other than Chris cast, it's a different part. Suddenly, the part has to exist as a role."

In his Times review, Frank Rich described the work as "Durang's Glass Menagerie," foreshadowing a Tennessee Williams spoof the playwright would do nine years later: For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls turned Laura into Lawrence, a repressed, mama-dominated, lavender wallflower. Under Bobbie's direction, it bowed among the one-acts in Ensemble Studio Theatre's 1994 marathon, then broke into a regular Manhattan Theatre Club run with other antics, umbrella-titled Durang/Durang.

There's a zigzaggy history to Durang/Bobbie, too: Bobbie performed in Durang's Broadway debut, A History of the American Film, and Durang performed in Bobbie's Encores! edition of Call Me Madam. This two-hat trick works for Bobbie: "Sometimes I feel that, as an actor, there are many people who can do what I do just as well if not better, but every once in a while a project will come to me as a director and I will go, 'This is mine. I really feel more useful here.' I love helping a writer tell a story."