It's a "man bites dog" story when David Mamet, the writer of tough, terse, profane prose in macho plays and movies, writes a period comedy of Victorian manners in the arch, satirical vernacular of Oscar Wilde. His three female characters are concerned about matters such as love, seduction, manipulating a male to best advantage, whether the stove will ever be fixed, a problematic emerald necklace and an imposing fur muff.
But admirers of Mamet's gift for gamey gab will not be disappointed in "Boston Marriage," because formal, fluty dialogue gives way to anachronistic exclamations such as "Tell it to the Marines!" "Izzat so?" "Stuff a sock in it!" and outright vulgarities "that would make a sailor blush," as the song says.
"Boston Marriage" is as niftily plotted as one of Mamet's con capers, from first moment to last. Claire, the younger lover of the cool, cultured Anna, returns after an absence to find her friend living in someone's lap of luxury, home redecorated and around her neck an enormous emerald.
"Do you not find it . . . somewhat excessive for the morning?" Claire asks. "I wear it," Anna says, "should I be summoned on an instant, to choke a horse." It is the gift of Anna's married male "protector," who has lavished the family heirloom and more than an ample allowance on his mistress.
"Good for you. Good for the Side," says Claire. "But does he not know your . . . 'reputation'?"
"He has just returned from a long sojourn abroad," Anna says, to which Claire replies, "On the moon?"
But Claire has other fish to fry. She wishes to use Anna's home for an assignation with a young woman with whom she is besotted. Anna is jealous and shocked, though not enough to prevent her from inquiring if she might watch.
The act one curtain, with one stunning sentence, dashes both women's hopes and dreams and puts them in very hot water indeed.
"I am undone!" cries Anna melodramatically and what follows is mutual castigation and recrimination until they concoct a scheme to extricate themselves from their difficulties, one that would do Lucy and Ethel or Mapp and Lucia proud in its profound idiocy.
Do pay close attention to the denouement, because it proves that the play has always been about love and love of language, with a naughty little grace note at the end.
The three women represent distinctly different Victorian social classes. Anna is a witty, worldly aristocrat or able to pass herself off as such, which amounts to the same thing. She is an adventuress, whose fortunes will seesaw throughout her life. Claire comes from a lower social strata, schooled by Anna, Eliza Doolittle-like, though she gives herself away every now and then with a "dead common" turn of phrase. ("You ain't 'ruined.' Just don't tell nobody, you dense cow.")
And then there's Catherine, the working class Scottish maid, played by Wendi Berman as comically dense, but sly enough to wise up quickly as the play progresses. By the end she's giving almost as good as she gets from the viperish tongues of her "betters." Her accent is also neatly in place.
Melissa Hall's Claire barely employs an accent, and the pace of her dialogue could be quickened, but she is so pertly pretty in her blue suit, bow tie and blond curls, that one thoroughly understands Anna's ardor.
The season is young, but one cannot imagine a feminine performance bettering that of Diana Shortes' Anna. From her clipped, precise speech, lofty hauteur and devastating delivery of her wickedly witty lines, she is sublime, an impure pleasure that lingers and tickles the mind.
Luis Q. Barroso directs with finesse and a great sense of improper fun. John Grimsley's drawing room setting has a kind of stock company elegance, and someone has impudently arranged the curtains to give a glimpse of a pinkish recamier that suggests, shall we say, a Georgia O'Keeffe blossom. Jim Word's modish period costumes are handsomely and later amusingly appointed. And Barroso has chosen the "Opera Babes" duets for pre-show music.
"Boston Marriage" is hilarious, civilized entertainment playing -- alas! -- only one more weekend. It demands to be seen and savored.