Review: Boston Marriage ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 24, 2007

Review: Boston Marriage

Boston Marriage by David Mamet, directed by Wayne Pearn. Designed by Paul King, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis, sound design by Chris Milne. With Corinne Davies, Helen Hopkins and Eleanor Wilson. Hoy Polloy @ the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Brunswick, until October 6. Bookings: 9016 3873.

David Mamet allegedly wrote Boston Marriage to prove that he was capable of creating good roles for women. There are a number of lessons to draw from this; primarily, that a playwright with something to prove ought to be locked in a cupboard until he gets over it. Still, I suppose, in an anthropological kind of way, it's an interesting exercise to see this most macho of writers dressing up in drag.

Boston Marriage, written in 1999, is a bizarre stylistic collision between David Mamet, Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet. Despite a decent production by Hoy Polloy, it's every bit as awful as it sounds, at once arch and crude. I guess it's a kind of reworked American Buffalo, translated into Wildese and flipped over into the feminine.

It's basically a farce, revolving around a complicated intrigue between two upper-class women in Victorian-era Boston, Anna (Helen Hopkins) and Claire (Corinne Davies). They have a "Boston Marriage", which is to say, a long-term lesbian relationship that - as long as it was pursued with discretion - was a means for women to obtain "sensual pleasure" without threatening their respectability. Their dialogues are regularly interrupted by their maid, Catherine (Eleanor Wilson), newly arrived from the Orkneys, who provides the occasion for some low comedy and a crass critique on class.

As the play opens, Anna reveals that she has a rich male "protector", who provides her with money and expensive gifts; meanwhile, Claire has fallen in love with a schoolgirl. The protector is no threat to their relationship - men, after all, "only exist to be deceived" - but the schoolgirl is. When it turns out that Claire's young love-object is actually the daughter of Anna's protector, their source of income is threatened. There follows a bungling plot cooked up between the two women to cover a crime - the alleged theft of a necklace - that never happens.

Aside from the play, there's little to complain of in the production. Wayne Pearn directs with a deft hand, using a detailed design and clever lighting that subtly highlight the play's artifice. Hopkins and Davies negotiate Mamet's jaw-cracking dialogue with aplomb; if there is little sense of "sensual pleasure" between them, I think it is not their fault. All those words get in the way. Mamet doing Wilde demonstrates that style is not something that can merely be put on, like a hat. He dresses his dialogue up with a strained literary verbosity: as Mozart says of Salieri in Amadeus, there are "too many notes".

Wilson, as the not-too-bright maid, has the opposite problem. She really exists to be a spur to her employer's upper-class heartlessness (Anna can't tell the difference between the Irish and the Scots, and constantly berates her for the potato famine) and to deliver a couple of faux-naif double entendres.

It made for quite a long 90 minutes. As we left, my son commented that the play might have been funnier if it had been played by men in drag. He may be correct: after all, Genet's The Maids, which this play inevitably recalls, is written to be played by men. Genet had a better handle on the game of gender than Mamet does. But even in the best of circumstances, it's hard to imagine this play being anything more than a slight curiosity.

Whatever it is, it's teeth-achingly mannered. I'm all for artifice in the theatre, and Mamet has always been a master of artifice: but this is like drinking tea with too much sugar in it. Here art becomes the lie that reveals - nothing. I think it's called decadence.

Picture: Publicity shot for Boston Marriage: from left, Corinne Davies, Helen Hopkins and Eleanor Wilson.


Brian Santana said...

Hi Alison,

Part of your description of this production of Boston Marriage, one of Mamet's more recent works, is consistent with my own feelings towards many of his later plays and films: "Here art becomes the lie that reveals - nothing."

While Mamet has always been obsessed with "games" and "artifice," much of his more recent work (in theatre work like Boston Marriage and in film work like Heist) seems less interested in these games as a vehicle in which to engage other issues or ideas, but instead offers them as an end in themselves. While the innumerably plot and character twists and detours are interesting enough during the immediate experience of watching the play, more and more I find that such works offer little long-term resonance. They are forgotten upon leaving the theatre, the games end rather than provoke discussion and I get the impression that there is less there than Mamet would have us believe.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Brian - all too true, I fear. Mamet at his best rips along, even if nothing happens. At his worst, nothing happens very tediously. I'm not sure he's been at his best for a while. The gloss faded for me after True and False, though Oleanna was a bit of a problem... He does seem to be "trying on" different playwrights, not that there's anything wrong with that, but he's not exactly light-handed... I haven't read his Chekhov adaptations, or his Faustus, and I can't say this makes me feel that I should.