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 through.

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:

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

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.

Ironically (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 it.)

Fortunately, 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 Ross. 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.

It's 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?

It's 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.

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