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By Abraham
Lincoln Straw

The following is an excerpt from a June 1999 review of David Mamet's Boston Marriage, in its world-premiere production directed by the author at the Hasty Pudding Theater in Cambridge, MA. Appended are Mr. Straw's thoughts on the play's New York premiere directed by Karen Kohlhaas, which opened at The Public Theater in November 2002.

David Mamet's new play, Boston Marriage, is magnificent. It's one of the strangest new texts for the theater I've encountered this year and the strangest yet in Mamet's career. Nothing he has done--not the spooky innuendo in The Cryptogram or the gaps and disjunctions in The Old Neighborhood or the creepy betrayals in the films House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner--comes close to the leap of faith he took in this witty and unpredictable piece, which extends his new interest in historical period (shown for the first time in The Winslow Boy) in a wonderfully nutty direction. There are significant problems in the premiere production directed by the author at the Hasty Pudding Theater in Cambridge (an ART production), but, as with The Winslow Boy, the material is so strong that its splendidly odd texture and tone shine through anyway.

The only recent play I know of that compares meaningfully with Boston Marriage is Impossible Marriage by Beth Henley, which opened in November at the Roundabout Theater to mostly dismissive, and even some contemptuous, reviews. Boston Marriage is no less brave or bizarre than Henley's marvelous play, with which it shares major themes and conventions, and in all likelihood it will provoke similar grumblings of discontent and annoyance among startled followers who thought they had the playwright's experimental range more or less nailed down. Interestingly enough, both these playwrights are heterosexuals experimenting in the traditionally gay field of precious wit where ostentation coupled with flamboyance can swiftly annihilate dull conventionalism. Production matters aside, it will be telling indeed if (as the recent New York Times review of Boston Marriage indicates) the male playwright is treated with more critical respect than the female was when his studiedly artificial play comes to New York.

Boston Marriage is one of those brilliant puzzlers that is so much fun to try to figure out in performance that it seems a shame to give away too much of its plot. Plot, in any case, often takes a back seat to proudly frivolous arguments and crypto-sexual banter spoken by the all-female cast in a heightened and mannered language that sounds drafted by Wilde or Coward but finished by Genet. Wearing exquisite, floor-length turn-of-the-century dresses, the two main characters, Claire (Rebecca Pidgeon) and Anna (Felicity Huffman), occupy a synthetically silly, Dufy-esque painted set (designed by Sharon Kaitz and J. Michael Griggs) that reads "games afoot" before either woman opens her mouth: a pastiche of pastel washes and chintz effects punctuated by serpentine curlicues, red roses behind a robins-egg-blue loveseat and a striped banner at the proscenium edged by life-saver-shaped ornaments. From the outset, such basic questions as who these women are to one another, and what the real occasion is for their meeting, rush forward, only to recede into the delectation of Mamet's poisonous verbal candy before rising again later.

"I beg your pardon. Have I the right house?" asks Claire upon entering. "What address did you wish?" responds Anna. "Two forty five." "The number is correct in all particulars." "Then it is the decor, which baffles me." "Have you not heard that this one or that, in an idle moment, conceives the idea to redecorate?"

This could be an exchange between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, with its intense histrionic familiarity and its ambiguous pronouns that hang in the air. The conversational edges, however, are uncomfortably sharp and grow sharper, and the lesbian innuendo alternates with stories of sex with a man. Anna tells Claire that she has acquired a male "protector," who has paid for her redecoration and given her an emerald necklace (a family heirloom that will figure importantly in the plot). Berating Claire for her "so cruel and prolonged absence," Anna seems to think her friend should be happy about the income "sufficient to support both me and you in Comfort," but Claire stuns her with her own surprise announcement: she is "in love" with a pretty young girl. Ignoring Anna's acute jealousy, Claire further announces that she has invited the girl to the house this day for an attempted seduction, presuming upon Anna's "universally known and lauded generosity."

All this may sound perfectly clear, but it is far from straightforward in performance. The dynamic between the women is governed by strict unspoken rules that make it impossible to tell at any point how either really feels. Effete locutions suddenly give way to more typically Mametesque gutterspeak--"You Pagan slut," "Get off my tits"--without obvious cause. "I am sorry I was moved to speak with enthusiasm," says Claire after a minor altercation. At several other points, Claire pedantically corrects factual errors in Anna's conversation, as if Anna were stupid, even though her vocabulary is enormous and she quotes from a daunting array of literary sources. The intensity of the women's involvement with each other does imply mutual infatuation, but the audience is kept constantly off balance by the extremely arch and elliptical nature of the dialogue and by the self-conscious artificiality of the acting (which I'll come back to).

There is also a third character, a Maid named Catherine played with fine feigned obseisance by Mary McCann, who at first seems meek, a violet withered by comically excessive verbal abuse beyond her ken. Anna: "Cringing Irish Terror, is it? What do you want? Home Rule, and all small children to raise geese?" Catherine: "I'm Scottish, miss." Gradually, however, one notices that this maid is unsurprised and unscandalized by all the goings on, and is "acting" her meekness as Claire and Anna are "acting" their classist arrogance. She eventually comes out with openly cheeky and self-aware remarks that make it clear she is in on the elaborate game, itself a fairly obvious reference to Genet's The Maids (one of whose characters is named Claire). It's a mark of Mamet's superb control that while one recognizes refined and cynical scheming all along in the vein of Liaisons Dangereuses, the use of Genet's more extreme idea of a totalizing playacting ritual (encompassing everything, in retrospect, even the plot's apparent coincidences) comes as a complete surprise.
Mamet has often worked through manipulation of familiar conventions and, as Stanley Kauffmann pointed out in a fine recent review of The Winslow Boy in The New Republic, one of his favorites is the well-made play. Surprise curtains based on secrets known to some characters but not others, key information imparted in letters and sudden arrivals, tension and suspense built around elaborate schemes (in the third act of Boston Marriage, for instance, the women dress in gypsy veils and pretend to be soothsayers): the twin emphases of strict logic and ruthless competition in this 19th-century form make it a perfect vehicle for Mamet's lifelong theme of deception.

But Kauffmann's piece on The Winslow Boy pertains to Boston Marriage in another way as well; he is one of the only critics I know of willing to talk honestly about the white elephant in the room where Mamet's recent work is concerned. I'm speaking of Mamet's casting of his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, in prominent roles whose demands she is flagrantly unequipped handle. She lacks the color and range to bring palpable life to such characters as Claire, Catherine in The Winslow Boy, and Deeny in The Old Neighborhood, and the dulling effect of her narrow repertoire is exacerbated when she appears beside seasoned and resourceful actors such as Huffman and McCann. Guided no doubt by Mamet's notorious preference for "simple directed-but-uninflected" acting (as described in his book True and False), both Huffman and Pidgeon devote much more attention to deadpan mugging, rhythmic delivery and hitting the right raised tones of voice than to creating believable emotional connections. Huffman, however, finds rich nuance and enduringly odd suggestion in her actions, whereas Pidgeon merely makes hers seem like deadly exercises in actorly obedience and rote memorization.

Reasonable people can differ over whether Mamet's stiffly controlled directorial style is the ideal means of maximizing the force and resonance of his language, as he thinks. It seems clear to me that the actors who have shown his work to greatest advantage--such as Joe Mantegna, Kevin Spacey, W.H. Macy and Macy's wife Huffman--have allowed themselves wide latitude beyond his eccentrically stringent restraints. Boston Marriage, in any case, like all his plays, will be performed in time by many better balanced casts, perhaps even by young boys (as Genet called for in The Maids), and regardless who is right about Mamet's current casting and staging choices, those productions will reveal much in his fine work for the first time.

Three and a half years later, as it happens, Boston Marriage arrived in New York with an embarrassing thud. In Karen Kohlhaas’s production at the Public Theater, the play seemed inert, repetitious and strained, and most critics drew the straightforward conclusion that the writing was weak. My own feeling is that Boston Marriage is difficult--probably the most difficult play to direct in Mamet’s tricky repertory because its playacting aspect is so fluid and variable--but the fault here was primarily the director’s.

Kohlhaas’s trouble began with her central decision to lean almost exclusively on the style and idiom of Wilde, as if the discovery of that allusion in the play were clever (it is glaringly obvious) and as if the sunny execution of Wildean mannerisms and locutions were a generic cure-all able to sustain audience interest in the most underdeveloped of character dynamics. Dressed in 19th-century finery and situated in a comically narrow and hot pink but otherwise realistic period drawing room, Kate Burton and Martha Plimpton acted the roles of Anna and Claire like a Gwendolyn and Cecily manqué--a pair of spoiled little rich girls trying on arch and sarcastic attitudes like hats and shoes. Plimpton, at least, vaguely looked the part. Burton’s cute behavior was utterly anomalous and forced. One wished the whole time that she would rise suddenly to her grande damish reputation and chuck all the attitudinizing, seize Plimpton by her alabaster throat, and either kill her, make love to her, or both.

The two actresses were so preoccupied with keeping up the manner imposed on them--keeping it the same throughout and the same between them, even to the point of mimicking the moments when each dropped her accent--that they entirely missed the chance to develop a coherent and interestingly varied friendship. They quickly became predictable, and their bitchy, overdone language became suffocating and inadvertently serious. The maid too, played by Arden Myrin, was disastrously one-note, weeping or furrowing her brow in apparently genuine offense at every insult and affront. She was utterly devoid of the inscrutability that makes this deliberately irritating character an interesting puzzle. Even the narrowness of the set (by Walt Spangler) seemed to exacerbate the lack of air in this production.

Boston Marriage is a play that lives by keeping the audience guessing about what its game is, and any production that decides too early or too sweepingly on a dominant idiom or style effectively names the game at the beginning. The pleasure of guessing disappears and the Genet-like questions of sexual power-politics and soul-deep roleplaying never meaningfully arise. Wilde’s comedy-of-manners world does have a fantastical aspect, but its trappings have been around for so long that, used as drapery as in this instance, they become just another grounded convention. Mamet, bless him, didn’t write a grounded play but rather a bizarre experimental escalade. He took, again, a leap in the dark and imagined a place outside his expected field of gravity where the fun depends on one’s never quite getting one's footing.


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