Boston Marriage in London
The British premiere of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage had all the trappings of being one of the most memorable and important productions of the 2001 London season. The cast featured Zoë Wanamaker, previously seen as the powerfully venomous Jolly in the Royal Court Theatre production of Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood (1998), and Anna Chancellor, who displayed perfect comedic timing in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound/Black Comedy (1998). Directing Boston Marriage was Phyllida Lloyd, one of London’s hottest directors. Producing the play was the Donmar Warehouse.
By David Mamet.
Donmar Warehouse, London. 17 March 2001.
The British premiere of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage had all the trappings of being one of the most memorable and important productions of the 2001 London season. (The American premiere of the play was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1999 at the American Repertory Theatre.) The cast featured Zoë Wanamaker, whom I had previously seen as the powerfully venomous Jolly in the Royal Court Theatre production of Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood (1998) and a hilarious sympathetic, sexually frustrated housewife in Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny (1994), and Anna Chancellor, who displayed perfect comedic timing in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound/Black Comedy (1998) and sultrily connived her way through Pam Gems’ Stanley (1996). Directing Boston Marriage was Phyllida Lloyd, one of London’s hottest directors, who turned a seemingly pithy musical comprising ABBA songs into a campy, loveable, critical, and financial triumph. Producing the play was the Donmar Warehouse, a small theater with an impressive production record throughout the 1990s, including the brilliant, introverted revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1999). And of course, the writer of the play had a fairly good reputation as well.
True to my expectations, the play’s first scene did not disappoint. In it Mamet introduces us to the Boston marriage (a late nineteenth-century term used in New England to denote a long-term relationship between two unmarried women) of Anna (Zoë Wanamaker) and Claire (Anna Chancellor). Their relationship at the play’s start is experiencing financial and personal difficulties. Anna attempts to salvage their economic situation by becoming the mistress of a well-to-do man, who has bestowed upon her an emerald necklace as a sign of his affection. Like most significant props in well-made plays (a genre Mamet toys with here), this necklace will prove to be the instigator for the plot machinations ahead. Meanwhile, Claire has begun eyeing younger women, and she proposes using Anna’s home as a safe haven for the seduction and future tutelage of her underage love interest. As the first act ends, scandal, lost reputation, and economic misfortune confront the two women’s future when Claire’s young friend recognizes her mother’s necklace around Anna’s neck. Mamet imbues this first scene with some aggressively funny and caustic dialogue between the two leads, and the lesbian relationship between Anna and Claire adds a twist to his rewriting of late nineteenth century plays.
However, the rest of Boston Marriage fails to keep pace, and the piece dissolves into tangled plot complications and boring farce. Even the witty exchanges of the first scene become repetitive and fatigued in the two remaining scenes as Anna and Claire scheme to protect their reputations and financial security. The play then takes a disastrous turn into a tired, misconceived scenario where Anna and Claire dress up as fortune tellers, hoping the disguises will deliver them from their predicament. The sketch (which feels more like it should be on Saturday Night Live in its last half hour) chafes against the rest of the play, and even Wanamaker and Chancellor seemed uncomfortable and uncertain about where the play was heading.
As I watched the play, contradictory responses assailed me (and they have only continued to multiply as I have written this review). On one hand, I could not help but admire Mamet for taking a new direction and trying to write a play he has not written before. Equally, I applauded him taking on his critics and writing a play featuring an all female cast (although it seems like he hedges a bit by removing the play to the nineteenth century, avoiding the criticism leveled at his contemporary female characters). But also, as I watched the play slowly straggle to its conciliatory conclusion, Boston Marriage struck me as nothing more than a writing exercise on Mamet’s part, which also might explain the rapid dropping off in the quality of the play after the first scene.
And yet, despite my struggles with wanting the play to be more than it was meant to be, there was a continuous bright spot throughout. Lyndsey Marshal, who plays Anna’s maid, gives a wonderful, star-turning performance. True, Mamet relies on the clichés embedded in the young servant girl character, who has romantic problems (the stove repairer ravishes her in the kitchen), is a bit scatterbrained, inserts her bizarre opinions and rambling family stories into the conversations of Anna and Claire, and is constantly mistaken by Anna to be Irish, when she is really Scottish. Mamet captures the language of her lower class status so much more effectively than the gentrified posturing of Anna and Claire, whose dialogue, while funny at times, always feels a bit forced and awkward (think Oscar Wilde witticisms filtered through Mamet’s linguistic style). Equally, Marshal brings a fresh quirkiness and apt comic timing to the role, while physically, her diminutive, wiggily body starkly contrasts with the postured, wide arm waving, and slightly manic posturing of Wanamaker and Chancellor. Of the three characters presented, hers is the most endearing.
Ultimately, the most memorable element of the Donmar Warehouse production of Boston Marriage was not the known but the unknown quantity. While the play may not have lived up to its hype, Lyndsey Marshal’s performance shined in what was, for the most part, an uninspiring evening of theater.
WILLIAM C. BOLES