To learn that David Mamet had penned a comedy about 19th-century New England lesbians was a bit like discovering that Noël Coward had written a play about an oil-rigger's stag night. Boston Marriage has the air of a public settling of a private bet. You can imagine David, chomping on a cigar at the poker table: "Who says I can't do women? I can do women. I can do women squared. I can do dykes!" Its first performance was at the Hasty Pudding Club in Harvard, and much of it could be confused with a laboured sophomoric skit – a sketch elongated into a 90-minute play. When you've got over the piquancy of the authorship, what do you have left?
Well, in Phyllida Lloyd's captivatingly tart production, you get a wonderful performance from Zoë Wanamaker. She plays Anna, the older partner in the eponymous relationship, who, to keep the menage in funds, has had to recruit a sugar daddy. Her strapping paramour Claire (Anna Chancellor giving Vita Sackville-West a run for her money) has developed a pash for a young girl. It emerges that the sugar daddy and the lust object (neither of whom we see) are embarrassingly connected. The play then shows the pair struggling with a scheme to explain away the incriminating emerald necklace.
Because of Wanamaker's superbly funny and sad performance, you don't sit there thinking, "Bring back Hinge and Brackett, all is forgiven". The way she avoids turning Anna into a drag act is remarkable, given that the play is very much a man's idea of bitchy female frustration. She wields the archly ornate language in sugar tongs that could always easily become a murder or a suicide weapon. She's a sapphic Marschallin figure, pained at the prospect of losing out to youth.
A patchwork pastiche of Wilde, James and Firbank, the dialogue switches between campily corseted elegance and verbal farting: one moment, it's "[speech] is as the chirping of the birds, minus their laudable disinterestedness"; the next, it's "Oh, might you get off my tits?". It's hardly a remarkable insight that women in this constricted society might feel the need for some linguistic loosening of the stays. And the gag is executed in a very hit-and-miss fashion. Their unbuttoned moments are dotted with presumably intentional anachronisms. But to what purpose does Anna talk of her life going "pear-shaped"?
When not pastiching lavendered littérateurs, Mamet pastiches his own plot devices. The scam involving a possible séance is a scherzo-recycling of the metaphysical one in The Shawl. The difference is that the earlier piece is a genuine work of art, whereas Boston Marriage is a fake. Lyndsey Marshall is endearing as the lusty little hetero Irish maid, though the running gag whereby she punctures the posturings of her snobby employers becomes wearisomely mechanical. And too much of the play's meaning depends on the reconsiderations prompted by a last-minute twist.
The posters quote from a review of the original outing. "As light and deadly as a cyanide sorbet." It's a great selling line, but wrong. Boston Marriage is as cold and pointless as one.
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