Metaphors, if you ask Anna (Sara Holdren ’08), protagonist of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, are to be embroidered upon, fleshed out, turned into apples of gold in pictures of silver by one highfalutin’ croupier.
This sort of wordplay permeates the play and gets awfully precious awfully fast, even when the lines are replete with Biblical allusions and French loanwords. Even the title is a double entendre, a euphemism for a quasi-lesbian relationship. But though it’s quicker with the witticisms than a Jewish mother with the criticisms, Boston Marriage turns out to be a reflexively, side-splittingly entertaining experience, thanks to the trio of sophomore directors cum actresses who star in the show.
The play traces the lovers’ spats of recently reunited couple Anna and Claire (Susie Kemple ’08), two “old women trusting to chemistry and candlelight,” both of whom have been busy in the other’s absence. Anna has found a male patron willing to keep her neckline adorned in exchange for her affection, while Claire has fallen in love with a girl young enough to require a chaperone and has returned to request assistance in concocting a seduction.
The plot itself is incidental to the play’s true appeal, watching actresses Holdren, Kemple and Christine Garver ’08, who plays Anna’s maid, Catherine.
Holdren plays the sort of bored mutton dressed up as lamb that refers to the Crimean War as “just one of those things,” spewing fire and brimstone and dropping aphorisms about pie and stress, love, religion and expensive jewelry with an endearing sense of her own theatricality.
Kemple, whose life has “gone pear-shaped” when she wasn’t looking, has the uncomfortable confession down to a science and doesn’t even seem to need the script’s one-liners; a sheepish, sidelong “today” in response to Anna’s question about when Claire’s new lover is to arrive, a squeamish “icky” to Catherine’s tale of lost virginity and a trademark lopsided snarl and eye roll will get her the same response.
And Garver, who plays Anna’s Scottish maid with a Hellish Nell brogue, spits her “mums” out between pursed lips and gems of wisdom with a convicted denseness and precision of comic timing that renders her integral to the play’s momentum.
The three dance around each other to a savage minuet of innuendos and insults, all clasped hands and veiled gibes. As the bigger questions about love and loyalty get mixed in with the smaller ones about who lent what to whom when, the chintzy (you’ll get it after watching) parlor starts to feel just claustrophobic enough to host a real marriage.
A dozen major newspapers called Boston Marriage “Wildean” when it was first released, treating it as a sort of risque sequal to “The Importance of Being Earnest” — with Frank as the title character, perhaps?
But the comparison seems to be a gesture of astonishment and admonishment, a whiskey-clinking, bottoms-up toast to Mamet’s brainwave: That motor-mouth idiolects work as well for female characters as they do to explicate the machismo machinations of Glengarry Glen Ross.
There are a few deliciously coincidental deus ex machinas, and a few dozen aphorisms at least on par with the bon mots that make Bartlett’s Wilde’s #1 fan, but the similarities between Boston Marriage and anything Wildean end there.
Mamet does with Wilde what Wilde did with 19th-century melodrama: Toy with the expectations engendered by the subject matter. So, for instance, the Wildean trope of having two characters argue ferociously in the foreground while a quieter individual tries — to no avail — to break in with the sort of news important enough to settle the debate, all to comic effect. Tweaked by Mamet, such that Catherine’s injections, when she is finally allowed her say, are comically trivial.
But the maneuverings of the lovelorn ladies aren’t Wildean; no mistaken identities, no revenge plots, just a solitary, half-hearted, Rube Goldberg attempt to salvage their dire situation and an intertwining of disparate plotlines that put me in mind of a different comedy of manners — Seinfeld.
The running gags, the neuroses, the lack of anything morally redeemable, the strict adherence to Jerry’s “no hugging, no learning” rule of scene-creation — all Seinfeldian rather than Wildean. We learn to wait for another round of Anna mistaking Catherine’s nationality (“What do you want? An apology for your potato famine?” she bellows at the poor maid) in the same way as we learn to wait for Jerry to find the peculiar and obscure flaw in his latest date.
But perhaps the most relevant similarity between Boston Marriage and Seinfeld is that both probably work best in half-hour chunks. It’s not that “Marriage” drags, per se; it’s that all the tittering eventually becomes hard on the abs and all the four-syllable words hard on the noggin, and when you can’t give more than a smirk of acknowledgement to a gem of a line about praying for “dissolution like a goldfish,” you know a commercial break is in order.
So maybe the schtick gets repetitive and maybe the characters’ kvetching is better than their consoling and yada, yada, yada. The acting is superb, the timing superior and the barb-laden cat fights sublime. Kramer tells us that marriage is just about doing time, and if that’s the case, I can’t think of a better way to pass it than Kemple’s, Garver’s and Holdren’s show.