Battle of Wits

Tuesday January 04, 05
by Dalt Wonk, Gambit Weekly

A drawing room. Anna is seated in a day dress. She wears a large emerald necklace. Claire enters.
CLAIRE: I beg your pardon. Have I the right house?
ANNA: What address did you wish?
CLAIRE: Two forty-five.
ANNA: The number is correct in all particulars.
So begins David Mamet's Boston Marriage, which proved such a hit at The Marigny Theater (formerly known as Cowpoke's Theater) that it was recently brought back for an encore weekend. Having attended one of those encore performances, I would like to make an addenda to my 2004 roundup by naming this show as last year's "Hidden Treasure."
But back to the beginning of the play.
In Boston Marriage, we are clearly not in the usual Mamet territory. Instead of male characters who talk like members of Richard Nixon's dirty-tricks squad, we get dames -- classy dames, to boot. What amused me in particular in this opening dialogue was the "in all particulars." part. The phrase is somewhat archaic, and aptly so, given that these classy dames are in "a drawing room" at the turn of the last century or thereabouts. But the phrase is also droll and revealing. After all, there were not a whole lot of particulars in "two forty five."
What is "revealed" is the dry, wicked sense of humor of the speaker -- a sense of humor that is shared by her visitor. Equally important, we learn we are in good hands, as far as the writer is concerned. Despite the endless adulation of Mamet for his sensitivities to the nuances of the "F" word, he is a playwright capable of spinning an extremely deft and highly original comedy of manners -- ill manners, perhaps, but manners nonetheless.
Of course, there is a story to Boston Marriage; it's a funny story and well told. Act one ends with a surprise revelation that fills us with expectations and suspense about act two. To put it briefly, Anna and Claire were lovers, are lovers, and will almost inevitably continue to be lovers. But Anna has found a wealthy male "protector'" to foot the bills. However, Claire has fallen head over heels for a sweet young girl. These two strands of the story, as it turns out, are closely related -- not to say knotted together in a comic imbroglio.
But the real fun of the play is beyond the story. It's in the "attitude" of the protagonists, and in the hilarious labyrinth of manners, mannerisms, witticisms, solecisms and schemes the characters wander around in, trying to reach clarity about who they are and what they are doing.
In addition to the two classy dames, previously mentioned, there is a Scottish "slavey" (that's a classy, old word for a maid). How this unlikely trio of ladies can talk to each other in a drawing room for two acts and never bore you, or oppress you with the slightest inkling of claustrophobia, I can't say. I suppose the mystery can be broken down into three simple elements: a damn good script, a damn clever director and three very talented actresses on a roll.
Anna -- the woman with the emerald necklace and the wealthy married "protector" -- was brought to vibrant, viperish life by Diana Shortes. The character's unpredictable, stormy surface seemed to rise from equally unpredictable emotional chasms. Melissa Hall played Claire, Anna's straying lover, with a great deal of charm and panache. The set-to between these well-matched, star-crossed socialites was a joy to behold. Although the only beholder onstage, Catherine the maid (fetchingly portrayed by Wendi Berman), was hopeless outgunned by her superiors in all fields of knowledge, except that concerning tarsiers. (A tarsier is a monkey from Bengal, as if you didn't know.) Anyway, the poor, put-upon slavey was a perfect foil for the rapier-witted, semi-grand dames.
With Boston Marriage, Luis Barroso proved he's got directorial chops to match the best of 'em. John Grimsley designed the excellent set, and all concerned (with the exception of Claire) assure me they excuse him for the chintz. Jim Ward provided the fine period costumes. Boston Marriage was a hit. But, even after the encore performances, it probably has not run through its audience (having won the 2004 Lesbian Theater Award from Curve magazine certainly won't hurt on that score). So it seems reasonable to hope this unusual, enjoyable show will soon rise again from its ashes. If it does, hurry and get in line.