There came a point about midway through the second act of David Mamet’s peculiar misfire, Boston Marriage , when I thought, with relief and surprise, “Oh, it’s over!” An abrupt blackout had suddenly descended with the jolly curtain line: “Well, ain’t you wicked!” Frankly, it seemed as good a place to end as any.
When tedium wraps you in its unforgiving, sleepy embrace at the theater, all ends are timely. Several others in the bemused audience must have thought the disappointing evening had ended, too. For there was a smattering of uncertain applause before an agonizingly slow scene change unexpectedly followed and the two turn-of-the-century heroines were back with us again, speaking in tongues or the dramatist’s elaborately arch, blatheringly convoluted “Bostonspeak.”
As Mr. Mamet might coyly put it in Boston Marriage: If I may be bold enough to beseech you, pray listen to my rumination on the malversation with which I now avail you. Although my humble opine shall come to naught lest-oh, my!-you garner the thrust of my declaration. That is to say, as I produce the rabbit from the reticule, I warrant you that such rodomontade dialogue-such words! and so many! and so confused!-ought to make sense. Common sense, as ’twere, of nonsense-ha!-I pray thee, however shallow the depths. True, surely.
But to the mumbling Mametean matter at hand! Lest we leave you all with the fuzzy, disorientated impression-heaven forbid! though I blush to suggest it-that one of us is out of our tiny minds.
Still with me?
But suppose you had two hours of Mr. Mamet’s uncharacteristic, unhinged verbal drooling in the name of a Jamesean comedy of manners. Suppose you could scarcely make sense of his pointless, bloated yammering in faux celebration of womanhood and literary ostentation. What, then?
And the answer is, you would find yourself in a daze drifting home from the Public Theater mumbling to yourself, “Well, ain’t you wicked!”
Boston Marriage , directed by Karen Kohlhaas, is itself a “wicked” scam about a scam. Mr. Mamet’s enthusiasm for the con artist is well-known. His latest play, or preening frolic, is the literary equivalent of Ricky Jay’s performing flea circus. It’s decked out quite nicely-the pink, period drawing room; the elaborate gowns; the studied poses; the ornate language. But there’s nothing there .
We’re meant to be titillated by the lesbian aspect, for instance. (Ooooh, dykes!) It’s why the likes of Sharon Stone and Anne Heche were first rumored to be coming to Broadway to play the two heroines and sometime lovers. The trick is to make it seem as if the play is about something hot . But the reality proves as sexy as a church bazaar. Mr. Mamet in his premature dribbles of dementia gives us painful muff jokes instead. (Muff = old-fashioned mitten. O.K.?) And the director gives us the farewell embrace between the two heroines, who at the play’s end briefly kiss each other with all the erotic relish of the severely neutered.
Anna is played by Kate Burton, grandly fluttering and posing more than usual. No gesture goes unmilked; no lip unpursed. Claire is played by Martha Plimpton, who remains one of our very finest prospects for acting greatness in spite of the nonsense she’s been put through here. The plot and the con are wafer thin. Anna has been having an affair with a married man who keeps her handsomely and has given her a priceless necklace. When Claire, her former lover, brings home a new young female lover of her own, trouble ensues (sort of). But the narrative, such as it is, wilts under the weight of Mr. Mamet’s foolish, overwrought words.
“Oh, fate inexorable,” Anna cries to Claire. “Oh, fate misthought at first to be but circumstance, revealed at last as the minute operations of the gods. Oh, fate but our own character congealed into a burning glass. Focus your cleansing light upon me, and I shall be cleansed …. “
Oh, balls. Who on earth talks this way? Who would wish to? Mr. Mamet in posturing party mood is not a pretty sound. There’s no reality to his two heroines, no authentic sense of lives truly lived. One’s a mouthpiece for a grande dame impersonator; the other poseur soon will be. It wouldn’t make much difference if the roles were played by men. It might be funnier, but I doubt it.
A sense of period isn’tamongMr. Mamet’s strengths. He botched his remake of the film version of The Winslow Boy (Terence Rattigan’s 1940′sclassicabout wrongfulaccusation and the price of justice in repressed England) by making it look like a Ralph Lauren window display.Turn-of-the-century,mannered Boston isn’t his to pastiche. He spices up the pseudo period flavor with “naughty” contemporary exclamations intended to be amusing from the pretty mouths of ersatz society dames. Sample: “You have fucked my life into a cocked hat,” or “Oh, what a vast, oh, what a vast and pointless shit hole it all is.”
The intention, I guess, is to show that women-even outwardly refined Boston women-can be as crude as men. It’s scarcely news. By any standards, this is poor, witless stuff. There’s meant to be a Wildean, or Cowardesque, touch to it all. There always is when it comes to epigrams and artificiality. I’m beginning to think that Oscar and Noël are the most overestimated playwrights of the 20th century, certainly the most overproduced. But Mr. Mamet’s barbs are no match for Wilde’s wit, and even Coward’s superficiality is seriously trivial.
What are we to make of repartee like this between the two ladies and their maid-an ever so gormless, ever so ‘umble stage maid (played by Arden Myrin in her New York debut)?
“I was goin’ to say, it’s like rowing ,” announces the maid, apropos of absolutely nothing.
“What is like rowing?” asks Anna after a pause.
“The troubles between women and men.”
“Pray. How is it like rowing?” Claire inquires.
“Men have big shoulder blades. Our shoulder blades are smaller. Which means less power rowing. Although, if you row correctly , you should use your legs , which, women have big muscles in our legs . ( Pause ) Though, of course, it don’t make much difference in a short pull.
“What doesn’t make a difference?”
“Why does it make much difference, then, rowing a long way?”
“Because, miss, like many things in life … “
Stop! (One surely thinks.) Spare us. But on and on Boston Marriage arbitrarily goes, rambling anywhere without point or direction, except to disguise David Mamet’s flying flea circus. Its grand con is the setup that the mythically male chauvinist Mr. Mamet is at last responding to his critics by writing a play with leading roles for women. The truth is it’s a non-issue that’s over a generation out of date.
Thedramatistof 1977′s American Buffalo , with its iconic all-male lowlifes, has written a number of leading roles for actresses. There was the allegedly sexually harassed, profoundly irritating heroine in the sex wars of Oleanna ; the enigmatic mother-lover of The Cryptogram ; the troubled sister-based on Mr. Mamet’s own sister-in The Old Neighborhood ; and the driven con artist and psychologist in his movie House of Games.
Writing female roles isn’t new for him. What’s new for Mr. Mamet is writing a play as bad, or mad, as his inconsequential Boston Marriage , unless-I pray thee! Oh, fate inexorable! Sayeth it ain’t soeth!-you buyeth the con.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.