CAMBRIDGE, Mass. An American Repertory Theater presentation of a play in three acts written and directed by David Mamet. Set, Sharon Kaitz and J. Michael Griggs; costumes, Harriet Voyt; lighting, John Ambrosone; stage managers, Rosetta E.R. Lee and Tara M. Galvin. Artistic director, Robert Brustein. Opened June 9, 1999. Reviewed June 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
Claire Rebecca Pidgeon Anna Felicity Huffman Catherine, the maid Mary MeCann
Having had his way with Terence Rattigan in his film version of "The Winslow Boy," David Mamet has turned his attentions to Wilde, Shaw and Shakespeare, parodying them mercilessly in his florid, highfalutin comedy "Boston Marriage." This is decidedly not the Mamet were grown to know, which suggests a certain fearless adventurousness on his part. And while it does have some laughs, the play is also too clever by half and altogether too pleased with itself. Eventually its over-the-top verbiage becomes tiresome. At three short acts, it's too long for its sometimes downright silly jokes.
Set at the turn of the century in an American city (the title is an old colloquialism referring to a same-sex relationship), the play revolves around two women who were once lovers. It does not, however, explore lesbianism. The central characters could just as well be a man and a woman or two men -- Mamet's point, presumably, is that relationships are much the same, whatever the sex of the partners. The trouble is that his two central characters are essentially just mouthpieces for endlessly wordy banter and bitchiness.
This lack of characterization is furthered by Mamet's highly stylized direction, which requires actresses Rebecca Pidgeon (Claire) and Felicity Huffman (Anna) to declaim their dialogue rather than act it. They almost never interact, and mostly come across as two shrill and straining Maggie Smith wannabes. Mary McCann actually brings more personality and characterization to Anna's Scottish maid (Anna perversely refers to her as Irish and never remembers her correct name).
The play begins with Claire visiting Anna to ask her if she may bring the new young woman she's lusting after to Anna's home in order to seduce her. Anna agrees as long as she can watch through a hole in the wall. She is a "tribade paramour," a lesbian with a wealthy male protector, and proudly wears an emerald necklace her patron has given her.
It turns out that Claire's would-be new lover is the daughter of Anna's protector, and when the daughter sees Anna wearing what is actually her mother's necklace, Anna is clearly in a spot of bother. She suggests a seance to explain matters, but by the time the play ends, it appears that much of what has occurred has been a ploy on Anna's part to get Claire back.
All of this takes place in very formal, stylish turn-of-the century clothes (courtesy of Harriet Voyt) and equally formal, stylish dialogue that is sprinkled with more than a few Wildean aphorisms. The production does not seem to serve the play well, piling style upon style until the edifice topples. A more naturalistic approach might be funnier.
It's impossible to decipher a rationale for the amateurish, unfinished-looking set by Sharon Kaitz and J. Michael Griggs, a painterly, pinkish drawing room replete with curlicues and powder-blue furniture that's feminine to the point of being effeminate. All in all, "Boston Marriage" is an artificial Mamet sweetmeat that's as likely to give toothache as pleasure.3