For the entire first act, the Denver Center Theatre Company's Boston Marriage is pure enjoyment. It's light and fast, and the language is dizzying -- clever and cleverly self-punctuating. The plot concerns two nineteenth- century women who live together in an arrangement termed a "Boston marriage." Some such arrangements were purely affectionate, but Anna and Claire are up-front lesbians. Though they're getting on a bit, Anna has snared a rich lover who has given her an emerald necklace -- a family heirloom -- and whose contributions will help the pair survive financially. To celebrate, she's done up the living quarters in swaths of chintz (a wonderfully fiddly, knickknack-laden set design by Lisa M. Orzolek), in the mistaken impression that Claire loves the stuff.
Claire has news of her own. She's infatuated with a young woman, and, with complete disregard for Anna's feelings (or is it that she knows her lover's voyeurism is stronger than her possessiveness?), she wants Anna to let her use the house for an assignation. Anna finally agrees, but only if she can stage-manage a little and then watch. When the young woman arrives, one of those Victorian plot twists occurs, though it's all offstage: She demands to know why Anna is wearing her mother's emerald necklace. Dismay! Confusion! The women are undone! Anna will lose her protector and Claire her young beloved. And so it goes on.
Through all of this, Anna's fuddled and incompetent maid has made frequent appearances, bringing tea, interrupting the conversation, adding oddly unrelated thoughts of her own. Her name is Catherine, though Anna calls her everything from Molly to Nora (Joyce's Ulysses? Joyce's wife?). She's also Scottish, but Anna insists she's Irish and likes to lecture her about the causes of the potato famine.
Most of David Mamet's plays feature predominantly male characters and reflect male interests. Whether these characters are small-time thugs or, as in Glengarry Glen Ross, salesmen, they spend a lot of time verbally eviscerating each other. Mamet's is a feral, loveless world. So there's been a lot of talk about Boston Marriage with its all-female cast being a departure, with some critics saying the play proves Mamet can create credible women and others noting that Anna and Claire are as merciless and as casually cruel (primarily to Catherine, though she doesn't actually seem to mind much) as any of Mamet's males.
Unfortunately, the second act of Boston Marriage isn't nearly as entertaining as the first, primarily because Anna, Claire and Catherine aren't really fully-fleshed characters, but agglomerations of words. There's a lot of silly business with Anna and Claire wearing multi-colored jeweled turbans and impersonating mediums. Things do get a bit more interesting as the action builds toward the O. Henry-style mini-revelation of the ending, though for the most part the plot doesn't bear much scrutiny.
The dialogue is lots of fun, however. There are all kinds of nineteenth-century locutions and bits that sound like Dickens or Shakespeare, all uttered with an ironic, contemporary awareness. Mamet's customary staccato rhythms break up the flowing Victorian prose line, even as the prose line emphasizes those rhythms. Anna likes falling dramatically onto the chaise longue, having the vapors, exploring flights of self-pitying fantasy, and we like seeing her do it. You can tell how language-obsessed the playwright is by the deliberate interplay between archaisms and contemporary locutions: He slips in words and phrases from all over the timetable. The term "spiv," for example, means a flashy, lowlife wheeler-dealer, and though it may have been in use in the Victorian underworld, it's hard to imagine our women would have heard it. The first recorded usage was in the 1930s. And then there's "sussed" -- or ferreted out -- a word from the 1960s. All of this is delicious, and so are some of the women's inventive insults. It's less delicious when the script resorts to the kind of expletives that pepper Mamet's other plays. You have to wonder about his intentions. Is this a would-be witty verbal juxtaposition, or does Mamet just find the word "fuck" irresistibly funny in a world of woman wearing the cinch-waisted, voluminously skirted, high-necked costumes and adorable decorated boots of the Victorian period (a nod to costumer Kevin Copenhaver is in order here). Or is it that Mamet just can't write without using it?
The ending of Boston Marriage is sweet, but nothing we've seen of the relationship between Claire and Anna so far prepares us for it.
Director David McClendon has cast the terrific Kathleen M. Brady as Catherine (during the medium episode, it's hard not to remember her scene-stealing performance as Madam Arcati in the Denver Center's Blithe Spirit), but she's miscast here. Catherine is supposed to be a young girl, and Brady is middle-aged, which makes nonsense of the maid's sexual ignorance and fear of pregnancy.
Nonetheless, you should see Boston Marriage for the lift and flow of the language and the vicious charm of the women -- Robin Moseley as the dry-tongued Claire, and Annette Helde in a tour-de-force performance as the witty, sulky, vivacious and oblivious Anna.
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