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As his fondness for
magician Ricky Jay (among other
things) reveals, David Mamet loves tricks and puzzles. Consider the mysterious titles of
some of his best known plays: Oleanna,
The Cryptogram. So it isn't surprising that his latest play, Boston
Marriage (now receiving its New York premiere) is not necessarily set in Boston (no
specific location is indicated in the program or the text), nor is the legal state of
marriage at all possible for its main characters who are lesbians. Then, there are the
puzzles of subject matter and style: the playwright has seemingly abandoned his familiar
dramatic turf where vulgar, grasping, desperate men struggle with each other and their
culture to survive. In his most characteristic plays-- American
Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross,
Speed-the-Plow-- commerce and criminality are irrevocably linked as the male
animals claw savagely for their place in the sun.
What have we here? No grubby junk shop, no frenzied real estate firm,
no tacky Hollywood rhinestone elegance, but the stylized distillation of a refined
upper-class drawing room circa 1900, peopled by two fashionable upper-class women and one
servant-- not a man in sight! This is the mannered world of Wilde, Maugham, Coward, and
their forebears Congreve and Wycherley. Has Mamet chosen to display his versatility and
disprove the canard that his macho considerations preclude an understanding of women? Can
he pull off the Martin Scorcese gilded-age illusion wherein the master of contemporary
urban violence turns smarmy goodfellows into Edith Wharton Innocents?
The eponymous "Boston marriage" (derived from Henry James's The Bostonians) referred to middle or upper-class women--often
intellectuals, artists, or feminists--who, by dint of independent incomes or careers,
lived together intimately without men. To what extent these relationships were explicitly
sexual is debatable. Obviously, some were and some weren't, but the participants were
clearly dependent upon each other for emotional support. It was not only a Victorian
phenomenon. Mary Wollstonecraft, in the late 18th century, hoped for a friendship with a
woman as consuming as any heterosexual love affair.
There is no sexual ambiguity in this play, however. Mamet's
protagonists, Claire and Anna, explicitly voice their sensual desires. Indeed, the engine
of the plot jump-starts on Claire's request that Anna play a beard to cover the seduction
of a young, nubile adolescent girl. Let's back up: Anna has wheedled support for this
unconventional household from a deluded newly acquired "male protector." But
with her Boston marriage with Claire in deep trouble; she accedes to the seduction
request. The best laid plans come aground when a necklace Anna has given Claire is
recognized by the girl as one that belongs to her own mother! In short, her father is
These Congrevian complications are the grist of sophisticated comic
intrigue. But the play is no mere exercise in comedy of manners. That something more
subtly ambitious is at work here can be discerned when one recognizes a radical conjoining
of discourses: an essentially decorous, sonorous, archaic Victorian discourse
("reticule," "rodomontade") is intercut with an explicitly vulgar
argot ("You have fucked my life into a cocked hat.") The tension between old and
new discourse is clearly intentional. One is reminded how the controversial Oleanna
fastened finally not on the "facts" of sexual harassment but on the question of
how discourse empowers the initially inarticulate Carol.
Mamet may have changed bottles but the wine remains the same.
People--yes, women as well as men--will claw and lacerate. "You are brutal,"
says Claire to Anna, and so she is, but Claire cannot see the cruel egoism of forcing
Anna's complicity in her own cuckoldry. As intensely as any male contenders, the women
protagonists in this play verbally excoriate each other as they jockey for dominance in
their relationship. "Every note you strike is false," accuses Claire, "I
cannot assemble them into a rational composition."As lightning-rod and convenient
target for their growing frustrations they turn towards their Scottish maid. Despite the
girl's repeated protestations, Anna keeps insisting that she is dim-witted and Irish, a
misunderstanding that is dramatically hilarious but extremely painful in its naked display
of class privilege.
So Boston Marriage is not so very different from Mamet's other
plays after all. Like many another Mamet piece it is written in three economical, brittle
scenes in which dialogue is stripped to its essentials around a dynamic throughline.
However historicized and formalized, the dramatic world exposed here is one in which the
marginalized fight with bravado a system that represses them. The women in Boston
Marriage live on society's fringe as they struggle to maintain an unaccepted love
relationship.The shifts, the sacrifices, the jealousies and duplicities revealed are
exacerbated by the couple's outlaw status, but Mamet implies that they are the inevitable
result of any long-surviving "unity of two."
One wonders to what extent the present Public Theater production aids
the play's elucidation. Kate Burton, Martha Plimpton, and Arden Myrin as the two lovers
and their servant give stalwart performances that command attention. But they are pitched,
from the very outset, at such high levels of stylization that reality of character and
situation have to struggle to make themselves felt. It is a tribute to the actors involved
that we do come to believe in them. But perhaps some middle ground could have been found
to make the task easier. Director Karen Kohlhaas, who indeed found such a style in her
excellent production of The
Water Engine at the Atlentic Theater, never here quite succeeds in defining the
bone beneath the skin of the play. In the best high comedy the way of the world is never
merely witty or frivolous; it sparkles because it's hard.
New York, November 26,
- Gerald Rabkin