'Boston Marriage': barbs beneath Victorian propriety

Every new David Mamet play is a significant event. "Boston Marriage" is no different.

Its world premire last week at the American Repertory Theatre here was often amusing and certainly sharp. The play does for hard-edged female characters what many of his others have done for hard-edged males - expose the cruelty, venality, and predatory impulses in them.

But unlike the men of Mr. Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" or "American Buffalo," who are thoroughly reprobate, there is a little more to these women - though that "more" glides under the surface of their banter, rising briefly at the end.

Set early in this century, the play concerns two longtime companions, Claire (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life wife) and Anna (Felicity Huffman). Their "Boston marriage" (a euphemism for a committed female relationship) is in trouble. And Anna tries with all her might to salvage it.

Meanwhile, she is a user. "Men live but to be deceived," she tells Claire. She has taken a male lover, a "protector," as she calls him, to support herself and Claire. She hurls insults at her maid, Catherine (Mary McCann), with such zest, you'd think the woman would sink in a pool of tears with every dart.

But when Catherine does burst into tears (quite often, as it turns out), it's because she's homesick for Scotland. So Anna insists on mocking Catherine's "Irish" heritage. Is it part of Anna's deliberate derogation or is she so utterly self-absorbed she never hears Catherine's protestations?

"You are brutal," says Claire. "I'm not," says Anna. "You referred to the Crimean War as 'Just one of those things,' " replies Claire.

But Claire is just as nasty in her own refined way. Claire's and Anna's barbarity to the maid and to each other, their greedy appetites, and their shallow self-concern would be as alarming as Mamet's macho madmen's were it not for the gleaming surface of upper-class propriety, the elegant language (and even more elegant carriage) of the actors, the humor, and the fact that no one seems to feel the barbs too keenly.

To underscore the contradictions and confrontations, Mamet, who directed the play himself, has chosen a strangely cartoon-like set (by Sharon Kaitz and J. Michael Griggs). The walls are done in stripes of red, orange, pink, and black, a kind of post-modern mockery of the late Victorian period. A goofy lavender settee with zebra stripes dominates the stage. All the furniture is mismatched, ugly, and absurd.

Absurd, too, are the crude, contemporary idiomatic expressions that break out every once in a while, disturbing the graceful surface of Mamet's language - albeit, always to reveal something about the mental state of one of the women: the vulgarity of the maid, the predatory selfishness of the lovers.

Playwright Mamet is the master of revelatory chatter - profound insights are tossed off, yet they strike home. There are always moments of exquisite self-knowledge, or of perception about reality that drive toward meaning. "We suffer for our sins," Anna says. "But not before we've made others suffer," says Claire. Later, Claire asks, "What in life is not a compromise?" and the answer that sweeps away all the absurdity is "love."

Many of Mamet's essays, and his inspiring new film, "The Winslow Boy," reveal something of his sense of justice, ethics, and his wise insights into human nature.

Even his famous predilection for repetition means something - just as it does in music when a motif is repeated. "Do you see?" is a phrase that carries a world of meaning because Mamet uses it from play to play, and in "The Winslow Boy," which he directed. Very often his characters don't see, don't understand their motivations.

The performances by Huffman and Pidgeon are perfectly balanced, all marble and bronze - hard, smooth, and cool. Verbal daggers glance off them like feathers. Each has such exquisite control of her character, such perfect timing, they seem as premeditated and immediate as sunrise.

*Rebecca Pidgeon stars in David Mamet's 'The Winslow Boy' (in movie theaters) and 'The Spanish Prisoner' (now on video). Felicity Huffman appears on 'Sports Night,' Tuesdays on ABC at 9:30 p.m.

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