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Boston Marriage


The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1999 • Volume 6 • ISSN 1095-9629


By David Mamet. American Repertory Theatre Production,
Hasty Pudding Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 4 - 27 June 1999.


Left to right: Rebecca Pidgeon
and Felicity Huffman in Boston Marriage, written and directed by David Mamet.
American Repertory Theatre 4 June - 27 June 1999. Photo by Richard Felman.
Near the middle of Boston Marriage, David Mamet’s new Victorian-period comedy about two genteel Boston lesbians, Anna, the aging lover, says to Claire, the younger lover she’s in fear of losing, "Let me get my auger." It’s a hilarious and shocking line. For the second time in two acts, Anna (Felicity Huffman) has been negotiating with Claire (Rebecca Pidgeon) about how she might participate in Claire’s seduction of a young girl. Once again, Anna has to reconcile herself to the prospect of merely watching Claire and her new paramour cavort. Pragmatism and despair vie as Anna declares her intent to make the best of a compromised situation by drilling the needed hole: "Let me get my auger."

Throughout the play, Anna expresses furious contempt for the banalities of domestic life, such as how to keep servants or get a stove repaired so that one’s tea might be served hot; and yet she displays disarming familiarity with hand tools. Her unexpected response to adversity travesties Boston proprieties, collapses class distinctions, and demonstrates the practicality with which sophisticated women, no less than men, will act to secure their interests. Thorstein Veblen has met Oscar Wilde; and Boston Marriage is a very witty, incisive satire of decorous vulgarity, barely repressed desire, and class hostility.

The title "Boston Marriage" purports to be a Victorian euphemism for a long-term, intimate relationship between two women. The one Mamet depicts is on the verge of disintegrating. Anna has accepted gifts from a male protector in order to keep a comfortable home for herself and Claire. Oblivious to Anna’s sacrifice, Claire has fallen in love with a young girl. She plans to seduce the girl at Anna’s house while Anna entertains the girl’s mother with tea and pie. Thus the play’s premises are delightful and vile. The seduction goes awry when, at the end of act one, the girl arrives and sees her mother’s necklace around Anna’s neck; it is her father who has been keeping her new lover’s friend. In act two, Claire mourns the loss of the girl, and Anna mourns the loss of her sinecure and Claire. They fantasize about the tryst and scheme how to rescue the situation, finally pinning their hopes on faking a seance as a way to lure father, mother, and daughter to Anna’s residence. In act three the despondent lovers rebound from the failed seance but receive notification from the father-protector that Anna will be arrested if she doesn’t return a "stolen" necklace.

Anna and Claire’s seductions, machinations, and insults are calculated to shock, but the point is not salaciousness or reproval. Anna and Claire have passions that, however self-indulgent, rebel against gender restrictions, class roles and proprieties, even clothes and furnishings. The wit and thrill of the play issue from these tensions. Anna is not suffering her aging at all gracefully; the slightest annoyance unleashes virulent class and ethnic animus. By walking into the room, Catherine, the maid (Mary McCann), elicits Anna’s hilarious vitriol against the Irish servant class in Boston — the Irish have only themselves to blame for the potato famine; hadn’t they ever heard of crop rotation, the whining fools? Regularly, between bursts of tears, Catherine must remind Anna that she’s a Scot.

According to Mamet, "The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience," which requires "a strong voice, superb diction, a supple, well proportioned body, and a rudimentary understanding of the play" (True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, 1997). In this premiere production of Boston Marriage, performances resonate far beyond clear communication. Strong voices, superb diction, and supple bodies strike romantic-melodramatic poses that gradually wilt into modernist gestures of impatience and desolation. Felicity Huffman reclines grandly on the settee to hear a story, freezes in disdain as the story begins to bore or vex her, and then impatiently bounces her knees when she cannot bear to hear more. Civilization withers but life resounds in these little gestures. Boston Marriage is wittily impatient with its own dramatic conventions. Manners and yearnings, Wilde and Mamet, the old and the new, contend boisterously.

Rebecca Pidgeon and Mary McCann are excellent, Pidgeon at repartee that conjures tantalizing images of the girl from Anna’s cues, and McCann at revealing with superb comic timing the resourcefulness of the doltish maid. Felicity Huffman, however, is brilliant–dazzling in her invective, posturing, and determination to stay in the game. Under Mamet’s deft direction, the actors’ diction and movement both capture and travesty Victorian style. The costuming, by Harriet Voyt, effectively contrasts and represses the characters, giving them graceful lines and hiding their bodies. Sharon Kaitz’s and J. Michael Griggs’s set suggests a turn-of-the century stage, with vaguely period furniture and placards announcing scenes. The walls, however, resemble a modernist painting, say a rough Mondrian, with blocks of color. A character seated against the back wall (I recall a forlorn Anna in act two) creates an arresting visual composition, one that contrasts eras, attitudes, and styles. John Ambrosone designed the lighting.

Still, Mamet’s sharp, rhythmic, strategically crude speech drives the play. These characters use language to create their reality: to occupy themselves with fantasies, to lament their ignorance (Anna wishes she had read more so she could speak knowingly of India), to analyze education (a pushy tool for the upwardly mobile), and to annihilate Victorian (and late-twentieth-century) pretensions and hypocrisies. Boston Marriage is a brilliantly clever, serious play that surely will go on to successful runs in New York and in regional theaters.

University of Maine, Orono