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Boston Marriage, New York Public

The New York City premiere is dominated by Kate Burton, whom we saw recently as Hedda in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. She plays Anna, a middle-aged, fashionable lesbian, in a highly mannered way. She maintains a china-doll smile as she utters portentous, literate babble in a high-society style. Her younger counterpart, Claire, played deftly by Martha Plimpton, is returning to her old haunts after an indeterminate absence. Anna and Claire together take up the endless badinage of Gwendolyn and Cecily in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

BOSTON MARRIAGE
By David Mamet
The Public Theater / New York Shakespeare Festival
20 November 2002

    Boston Marriage was first presented by the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts in June 1999, and then at the Donmar Warehouse in London on March 8, 2001. The present production is a revival directed by Karen Kohlhaas, a founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company, with which Mamet is closely connected.

    This version is dominated by Kate Burton, whom we saw recently as Hedda in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. She plays Anna, a middle-aged, fashionable lesbian, in a highly mannered way. She maintains a china-doll smile as she utters portentous, literate babble in a high-society style. Her younger counterpart, Claire, played deftly by Martha Plimpton, is returning to her old haunts after an indeterminate absence. Anna and Claire together take up the endless badinage of Gwendolyn and Cecily in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), even to some pointed wordplay on the word “trivial”:

ANNA: How can philosophy be trivial? When have you known me to be trivial?

CLAIRE: You once referred to the Crimean War as Wilde subtitled his play “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” Boston Marriage is Mamet’s successful imitation of the conversational wit of Restoration comedy that echoes in Wilde, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Joe Orton, and others. Witty conversation is the essence of comedy of manners.

 

The Maid, Catherine (Arden Myrin) poised between Anna (Kate Burton) and Claire     (Martha Plimpton) in Boston Marriage

The Maid, Catherine (Arden Myrin) poised between Anna (Kate Burton)
and Claire (Martha Plimpton) in Boston Marriage

 

    The elaborate plot, including a remarkably large emerald necklace presented to Anna by her male keeper and Claire’s desperate flirtation with his daughter, acts as a mere scaffolding which liberates the brilliant interchanges of wit. I disagree strongly with William C. Boles’ negative review of the Donmar production of Boston Marriage because it puts an excessive emphasis on the extravagant plot, which in itself is a parody of Victorian melodrama (David Mamet Review, Fall 2001).


    Mamet has a lot of fun with the maid, Catherine, expertly played by Arden Myrin, who is distilled from a thousand other maids in English comedy. She is distinctly lower-class and earthy, a Scot (although Anna’s fantasy creates her as a ghost of the Irish Potato Famine) who constantly quotes the folk wisdom of her old granny. Mamet plays her off against the upper-class pretensions of Anna and Claire, which she very successfully undercuts Claire, which she very successfully undercuts.

    By making Boston Marriage so distinctively a woman’s play, Mamet seems to be answering some of his reviewers’ objections to his macho and misogynist style. He even goes so far as to develop an anti-male polemic in this play, which is playfully amusing, for example in the dialogue almost at the very beginning of the play:

    ANNA: Men . . .
    CLAIRE: What can one do with them?
    ANNA: Just the one thing.
    CLAIRE: Though in your case, it seems to’ve been effective.
     ANNA: In like a Lion, out like a Lamb.

 

    Mamet also seems to be amusing himself with deliberately inserting vulgar, colloquial expressions into his highly overwrought, euphemistic dialogue. A good example is from the beginning of Act Two, when Claire is beginning to despair of her rendezvous with her young lover:

    ANNA: You think with your loins.
    CLAIRE: Oh, Land of Goshen. Oh, how more than droll. What of your Bible now? What of Forbearance, meek and mild. . .
    ANNA: . . . kiss my ass.

 

This exchange concludes with Claire’s climactic remark: “You have fucked my life into a cocked hat.” the effect on the audience is disorienting, as are Mamet’s sly colloquialisms like Anna’s “Izzat so” and “didja think.”

Walt Spangler’s set for the production effectively established the mood. Before the characters appear, we sit looking at a characteristically upper-class drawing room with a violent, aggressively pink wallpaper with stripes. This was a Day-Glo pink matched with pink cabbage roses in a vase. It was definitely a disturbing scene.

Also in the area of fabrics is the large, pseudo-intellectual question of whether or not Claire likes chintz. Anna says provocatively: “I have redecorated our room in Chintz. In Chintz, a fabric I abhor, in your absence, do you see? To please you.” Is the question settled at the end of the play in what seems like a climactic piece of dialogue?

    CLAIRE: I abhor chintz. (Pause)
    ANNA: You said that you liked it.
    CLAIRE: I spoke in jest.
    ANNA: Yes, perhaps I have wronged you, too.

 

Or is it settled by the long kiss at the end of the scene? This production put great emphasis on the passionate embrace.

The play was tightly directed by Karen Kohlhaas. Perhaps this endowed it with such a strong unity of tone. A great deal depended on the contrast between the arch nonsense that the women were speaking and the currents of feeling—of a promised reconciliation of the old lovers—that were running deeply underneath. The audience was caught up in the brilliance of this histrionic tension.

Maurice Charney
Rutgers University