When David Mamet was at the peak of his playwriting powers in the 1980s, his rapid-fire, profanity-laced, testosterone-fueled dialogue was so distinctive that it became known as “Mamet speak.” For a decade, his plays exploring the male psyche earned him the reputation as America’s top playwright, with Glengarry Glen Ross winning a Pulitzer Prize. His success included film as well: His screenplay for The Verdict garnered an Academy Award nomination, and Mamet continued his exploration of men married to their work in the box-office smash The Untouchables.
Boston Marriage is different. Not only is the story set in the genteel 1890s, it explicitly mimics the style of the Victorian era’s own greatest playwright, Oscar Wilde. Penned in 1999, it’s a calculated departure from Mamet’s previous work, not only lacking his usual aggressive alpha males but devoid of males onstage entirely—though they’re certainly discussed as being depraved, good-for-nothing vermin. It’s a curious comedy, though an unsatisfying one, but this staging by 1812 Productions is strong.
The three-character play takes place in the urban residence belonging to Anna (played by a delightfully extravagant Suzanne O’Donnell). The well-appointed drawing room suggests that Anna is a lady of considerable means, but looks are misleading: Despite her luxurious surroundings and elegant gowns—costumer Alisa Sickora-Kleckner’s work here is a show unto itself—Anna’s wealth is not entirely her own. She confides to her close friend Claire (Grace Gonglewski), that she is the beneficiary of a “protector,” a wealthy man who, in exchange for Anna’s affection, has given her an emerald necklace the size of a golf ball. Surprised at her friend’s new dalliance, Claire, who has a new flame of her own, jealously inquires if the gentleman is aware of Anna’s “reputation.” It is our first hint that Claire and Anna are more than just friends.
What their relationship was, or is, isn’t made explicit—but then, everything in Marriage is discussed under a veil of decorum and deceit. Even the play’s title is a kind of code. A “Boston marriage” was a 19th-century term used to describe two single women living together; depending on its usage, it was also a euphemism for a lesbian commitment. That’s Victorian society at work, always insisting that etiquette trump clarity: If someone’s indiscretion absolutely had to be mentioned out loud, even between close acquaintances, it should never be explained directly but rather as obliquely as possible.
The necklace figures prominently in the plot, but the story never really grabs us. In fact, there’s very little action in Mamet’s experiment with drawing-room comedy. What there is, rather, is a lot of talking. Speaking in language so obscure it makes wartime codes seem obvious, Mamet seems fascinated with recreating the late-19th-century art of conversation. The dialogue is filled with long, winding, twisting sentences and loaded with innuendoes, implications, double entendres and a host of bygone words like “assignation” (a covert romantic rendezvous) and “reticule” (a small purse). Director Jennifer Childs refers to the play’s language as “verbal gymnastics.” It’s an apt description, but while the dialogue has a pleasantly musical quality as well as a feminine muscularity, it lacks the primal savagery that makes Mamet’s best plays so scintillating.
The more basic problem, however, is that the play gives these women of leisure very little to do ; Childs has to invent stage business to keep Anna and Claire from standing around like well-clad statues. With its emphasis on language and lack of movement, Marriage is reminiscent of a closet drama, a style of theater favored by the ancient Greeks in which a play is intended for recitation instead of production.
A playwright certainly doesn’t need men to make a great play. But this playwright, it seems, does. Mamet’s best works focus on men whose identity is inseparable from their occupation—and as Anna and Claire have no occupations for Mamet to work with, he struggles to give them a clear sense of identity. Only Anna’s servant, Catherine (Caroline Dooner), displays a firm sense of self.
Childs has a keen sense of comic timing, and both Gonglewski and O’Donnell give strong performances. In combination with Sickora-Kleckner’s colorful and bold costumes, Adam Riggar’s gorgeous set gives the production strong visual appeal. Yet despite the best efforts of director, designers and cast, Boston Marriage never succeeds in communicating anything meaningful. Instead of an important play about women’s passion and independence, what we’re left with is a pale imitation of the works of the great Oscar Wilde, that’s neither as clever nor humorous as the real deal.
Through May 20. $28-$36. Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St. 215.592.9560. 1812Productions.org