"Boston Marriage" on the American Repertory Theatre's Hasty Pudding stage at Harvard, was the strangest production I've seen in a long time. The press notices for this world premiere compared David Mamet's comedic concoction to the confections of Oscar Wilde. I can see how the comparison is invited by the aphoristic form of some of Mamet's faux period dialogue, and by the mannerisms that Mamet as director imposed on his performers' acting style. However, I was in the audience at the celebrated London production of Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" that Mamet seems to allude to in his staging. What was pointed up in that brilliantly artificial work was the usefulness of theatrical conventions that flout the fourth wall. Scene partners did manage to connect with each other emotionally -- or at least they did so sporadically, in brief bright flashes of feeling -- even as they planted themselves with their feet in second position and faces cheated front, addressing their lines at least as much to the audience as to the character to whom they were ostensibly speaking. From there, it was but a tiny adjustment to line readings that frankly acknowledged the audience as a presence -- in character asides, or in the self-conscious critique of the poses that actors, celebrity playwrights, politicians, and socialites have in common. Wilde's on stage alter ego had no difficulty gaining the audience's complicity as he negotiated the rough patches where a person's image and history don't quite match. We in the audience recognized our hypocritical kin beneath the corsets and the Upper Crust mannerisms. Satire which critiques conventions and theatrical artifice which exploits them can indeed be compatible playfellows.
However: if Mamet's "Boston Marriage" is a satire, what is its subject? What is the attitude toward these distant people, the point of view from which we encouraged to laugh either at them, or at the staging conventions of their period? The title is witty bit of turn of the century shorthand for two women who keep house together, with the unmentionable implication that the spinsters may also share a sexual bond equivalent to that of husband and wife. Respectable Boston was apparently notorious for such arrangements a hundred years ago. Anna (Felicity Huffman), is a single woman of some social standing who is being kept by a rich married man. She is also entangled with the younger Claire (Rebecca Pidgeon), who herself has designs on a very young woman whom Claire hopes to seduce, if only dear Anna will lend her town house for the purpose. When the young woman shows up, not only does she turn out to be the daughter of Anna's rich and powerful protector, but the girl spots her mother's diamond necklace adorning the neck of the house's tenant. This unfortunate off stage coincidence leads to two more acts of plotting and panic, in the course of which intimacies and obscenities whose very existence is supposed to be unknown to late Victorian ladies occasionally rise to the surface of Mamet's stilted dialog, raising laughter from the sophisticates of Harvard Square.
Other sources of laughter are the ladies' entanglement in the subordinate clauses of their euphemistic diction, and their odd treatment of Anna's maidservant, Catherine (Mary McCann) an uncharacteristically chattersome Scot with a decidedly unCalvinist sex life whom Anna carelessly assumes to be an Irish Catholic named Mary. The servant's vivid description of a primitive and coarse heterosexual encounter is contrasted with the ladies quest for elegance above all, but neither mode promises much in the way of satisfaction. Act three finds the ladies decked out as gypsy fortune tellers, determined to bluff their way out of their difficulties -- but as anyone who counted the names in the program beforehand could have told them, their plot will end in frustration when the target of it declines to appear.
In front of a flat children's book illustration of a set, the watercolor washed line drawing of an empire sitting room by Sharon Kaitz and J. Michael Griggs, director Mamet arranged his blocking so that Pidgeon and Huffman spent ninety percent of their time staring off into the middle distance -- declining to connect with each other, or with the third character on stage, or with the audience. Mamet sometimes allowed Catherine to look directly at her betters, the better for them to ignore and dis her, and McCann also occasionally tried to make contact with the audience behind the backs or over the heads of her oppressors. What, exactly, was the point of these affectless and alienated performances? Is it by way of a demonstration that when women perform the conventional mating dance they demonstrate how empty and passionless it is, compared to the serious power plays among men? Or that our great grandmothers generally were so caught up in the convolutions of fashionable conversation that they lost track of what they were about? Or is the target old fashioned acting, all empty poses and precise diction? Or the taste for mannered comedy peopled by puppets spouting improbably clever and impeccably constructed witticisms? A high point of author Mamet's parody wit, rewarded with much appreciative laughter, was Anna's remark on the necessity to "keep a civil tongue in one's mouth -- not necessarily one's own." Apparently the audience accepted this as a clever Wildean twist on an old saw. But there is no such idiom. It is not in use currently, nor was it in the era represented by the script. The proverbial injunction is "keep a civil tongue in one's head" -- one that I have often found myself wishing that their elders had used on many a contemporary Mamet character.
In plain terms, we were not amused by "Boston Marriage". But who are we amongst so many -- a chuckling theatre full? Something about "Boston Marriage" tickled my neighbors' funny bones, and I spent part of Act Two and all of Act Three trying to figure out what it could be. After the show was over I applauded politely, and, still mystified by the audience's approval, busied myself with eavesdropping as the crowd jostled its way to the exit. I swear, I took this exchange down verbatim:
First Young Woman: She was terrible.
Second Young Woman: She was.
First Young Woman: I always thought that she could act.
Second Young Woman: Maybe she can. But she didn't.
First Young Woman: The other one was just as bad.
Second Young Woman: Worse. (laughs)
First Young Woman: You think it was on purpose?
Second Young Woman: Oh, no. The whole thing was awful.
First Young Woman: But you were laughing.
Second Young Woman: You, too! (laughs)
First Young Woman: Isn't that awful? It was terrible, but we all just kept laughing! (uproarious laughter)