Mamet’s Boston Marriage

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There was
some not-so-swell acting going on a couple of Sundays back at the Joseph Papp
Public Theater, where Kate Burton and Martha Plimpton are appearing in the New
York premiere of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage. As everyone will
know by now, the play–whose title derives from the antique euphemism for
a household ambiguously tenanted by two women–is framed as a drawing-room
comedy. Set in the Edwardian era or something like it, Boston Marriage focuses
on a pair of extremely articulate, self-dramatizing lesbians, Claire (Plimpton)
and Anna (Burton), who delight in carrying on with each other like Cecily and
Gwendolyn when they’re not carrying on like Algernon and Jack.

As the play
opens, the younger of the two women, Claire, has just returned from an unexplained
sojourn to find Anna’s house newly smartened up and Anna herself sporting
an unfamiliar and ostentatious jewel around her neck. The explanation: Anna
has fallen into clover, having become a rich man’s mistress. While the
two are still reveling in their newfound security ("…an account at
the Dressmaker’s…" and a monthly allowance "sufficient to
support both me and you in Comfort") Claire drops her own bombshell:
she has fallen violently in love. The object of her newest carnal passion is
a still younger woman–much, much younger, we are to understand–and
she wants Anna’s permission to bring the child there for a tryst. As Anna’s
elaborate and highly protracted reaction to this news begins to unfurl, it should
become clear to us (and partly does) that below the surface of all the brittle
banter and badinage lurks a more complex and nuanced relationship between the
two women than had first appeared, and one far more serious on Anna’s part
than either seems willing to acknowledge. Unfortunately, the two stars–at
least at the performance I attended–were camping it up so dreadfully that
neither the play’s wit nor all that much of its poignancy was able to come

For Mamet
fans and aficionados in New York it’s been a long time between plays. (His
last, The Old Neighborhood, arrived here in 1997.) And we’ve
had to wait a particularly long time to see this play, which first opened in
Cambridge, MA, at the American Repertory Theater’s Hasty Pudding space
in 1999. In 2001 it went to London, where it ran for a spell at the Donmar Warehouse
and then in the West End, where it enjoyed a good healthy run. It’s hard
not to feel that the delay in bringing Boston Marriage to New York had
something to do with the generally dismissive review it garnered from Ben Brantley
of The New York Times, who saw it in Cambridge and pronounced
it "a minor detour" and "a parlor trick." Re-reviewing it
last week under a headline that partially read, "A Boy’s Idea of Girl
Talk," Brantley stuck to his story:

it definitely is, with words like reticule and rodomontade brandished like fencing

But it is
principally a gymnastic exercise in language, in which Mr. Mamet takes on Oscar
Wilde and Ronald Firbank at their own epicene, epigrammatic games. And as it
was in Cambridge, so it is in New York: the game playing of "Boston Marriage,"
although intermittently amusing, never adds up to anything of substance.

(but in keeping with the Times longstanding tradition of
reporting on cultural developments the Times itself has created), Brantley’s
latest review also alluded to rumors that had surfaced "almost instantly"
after the play’s initial opening, that Boston Marriage "would
be coming to Broadway with a provocative movie star like Sharon Stone or Anne
Heche." In fact, those rumors surfaced "almost instantly" following
his own review of the play, and were widely interpreted as a fiercely jocund
playwright’s perverse response to what was essentially a perverse act of
journalism. For what had Brantley been doing going up to Boston to review the
play in the first place? And what, having decided to do so, was the point of
giving it a "let’s nip this thing in the bud" sort of notice?
The whole thing smacked of the Frank Rich/ancien régime approach
to Times theater coverage, the purpose of which, more often than not,
seemed to be to make New York safe from minor or inconsequential work.

It was an
approach based on a whole series of worrisome fallacies: that "minor"
work has no place in the literature of the drama (nor minor literature any place
in our lives), that only plays of heft, significance and consequence have anything
to offer a contemporary audience, and that the practical and artistic mechanics
of theater-making can rest solely on an endless supply of history-making plays.
None of these things is true, and it was just such thinking that led certain
valuable playwrights and worthwhile kinds of theater to be perceived by an increasingly
commercialized nonprofit community as unmarketable and unwelcome, exiling them
to regional climes where the Times does not as a rule venture.

The fact
is that there are plays we want to see not because of their weighty grandeur
or the literary perfection they attain but because of some isolated truthful
moment or aperçu–an image, a character, an exchange of dialogue–that
couldn’t be expressed in any other fashion, and that changes one’s
perception of the world in a small way, or even just lingers on in the mind.
It’s also true that there are playwrights whose work one wants to see simply
because one is interested in them, because they are part of the literary landscape.
(Though not the only playwright on this list, Mamet is surely at the top of

neither age nor time seems to have staled Boston Marriage much, and I
doubt that audiences will find it as slight as all that, or find it unrewarding
for being less robust, say, than American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen
. Between the ribaldry and the verbal filigree, there’s
a good deal of insight into the nature and workings of female intimacy, as well
as some well-observed jokes about the ways in which women relate to each other.
One of the most surprising things about the play is the way in which this female
version of the famous Mamet-speak–that highly stylized pattern of speech
that at once bears no relation to the way people actually talk and yet, at the
same time, does–captures the faux-histrionic, self-conscious literary games
that certain kinds of women (particularly very young ones) use both to establish
and to avoid an appearance of intimacy. (Certain kinds of gay men use it, too,
of course, but more as a pose toward life, I think, than each other.) Looking
at Mamet’s script for Boston Marriage it’s hard to believe
he hasn’t been eavesdropping on a couple of Brearley tenth-graders.

There are
cheaper jokes, too–some delicious, some less so. The play draws on every
trick and convention known to artificial comedy–doors, letters, ringing
bells, knowing servants–as well as on more contemporary gags like the anachronistic
juxtaposition of the arch with the anatomical. (There is also a quantity of
"muff" jokes. I never find these as funny as "dick" jokes,
but perhaps that’s my perspective.) My favorite device is the running gag
that has Anna affecting not to know that the maid (Arden Myrin) is Scottish
and named Catherine, and persisting in calling her things like "Bridey"
and "Nora" while launching into castigating lectures on Irish Home
Rule and the causes for the depletion of the potato crop.

something she tends to do as a way of venting on the maid the repressed rage
she is feeling toward Claire, but this fact was often obscured, the night I
attended, by the mechanics of Burton’s and Plimpton’s performances.
Instead of giving us acting that was either truly stylish or truly stylized,
the two performed as though someone had told them to do parody drawing-room-comedy
acting. They posed and declaimed, pouted and simpered, twitched their skirts,
struck attitudes, waved their hands about in the air (that was Burton, mostly),
played eensy-weensy-spider with their hands (mostly Plimpton), and generally
behaved like a couple of first-year Juilliard students encountering The
School for Scandal for the first time. Miss Burton even has a habit of
fiddling with an earring when she is about to deliver a particularly arch line–exactly
like the artificial-comedy hack whom we find brushing an eyebrow with one fingernail
whenever he feels he has a particularly choice mot to deliver. Plimpton,
for her part, seemed to be doing an imitation of Tony Curtis as the fictional
Josephine in Some Like It Hot: she kept popping her eyes and pooching
out her lips in that little soupçon of a moue that is so funny when Curtis
affects it. The result was that we found ourselves watching a woman playing
a man playing a lesbian. Doubtless, there was a certain Wildean flourish to
this, but it was exhausting to have to contend with, all the same.

Of course,
this sort of acting (in addition to being self-serving and disgusting to watch)
gets squarely between the audience and the play. Mamet’s script is funny
in its own right. He has written a play that is full of arch, witty lines. But
there’s no point in delivering an arch line archly. It just
creates mess. And the quickest way of robbing an utterance of wit is to utter
it like one conscious of being witty. Has one never heard of deadpan?

possible that the actresses were tired that night, it being their fifth performance
of the weekend, but this business of mistaking self-conscious staginess for
style has become something of an occupational hazard for Burton. This may not
be all her fault. She gave a singularly camp performance in the title role of
Hedda Gabler on Broadway last season. But that entire production of Hedda
was gay as Christmas laughter, and both it and Burton’s performance
had been ecstatically praised by Brantley when he (again!) had gone traipsing
up to Boston to review them, declaring both to be history-making and praying
fervently for a New York transfer. Performances do change over time, but if
there was any difference between what Brantley saw in New England and what he
saw in New York, he didn’t mention it in his second favorable review of
the production.

A friend
of mine who saw Boston Marriage the night before I did said that she
hadn’t found the acting quite so unbearable. Her husband had, she said,
which interested me, as my friend’s eyesight is poor. Perhaps it is the
visual element of the performances that needs to be toned down. Perhaps audiences
need only attend the play with their eyes shut. Or perhaps the two stars need
to listen more to their director, Karen Kohlhaas, who has worked with Mamet
for many years and teaches at the school that he and William H. Macy founded
for the express purpose of ridding the profession of acting of just such appalling
staginess and egotism. Or perhaps they need to rent some Mamet movies and study
the performances of Rebecca Pidgeon and Felicity Huffman (Mrs. Mamet and Mrs.
Macy, respectively), who originated the roles of Claire and Anna in Boston,
and whose husbands–I feel sure–had they carried on like Burton and
Plimpton, would have divorced them. Pidgeon, for whom Mamet habitually writes
roles with a hint of archness, has a wonderful way with such lines. She tends
to deliver them with an appearance of something like split-focus, as though
she were thinking of something quite different. That’s what makes it mysterious
and interesting.

Boston Marriage,
through Dec 8. at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. (betw. E. 4th St. &
Astor Pl.), 239-6200.