By Vicki Paris Goodman
Boston Marriage is a surprisingly good play. Who would have thought playwright David Mamet could write about women, especially late 19th century New England women? Not I. Who would have believed he could successfully infuse his signature rapid-fire staccato dialogue with Victorian repartee befitting one of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant skewerings of the aristocracy? Again, certainly not I.
But do these things he does, and Long Beach Playhouse director Phyllis Gitlin and her three-woman acting ensemble conquer the play’s abundant challenging dialogue with everything they’ve got. Bravo!
Ever New England’s social and cultural trend-setter, Boston, it turns out, figures in the euphemistic code name given over a century ago to the physically and emotionally intimate relationship between two women– a “Boston marriage.” This was news to me.
True to its meaning, Boston Marriage revolves around the long-standing on-again-off-again “friendship” between cruelly acerbic Anna (Susan E. Taylor) and the somewhat more self-controlled Claire (Brenda Kenworthy).
After a separation of many years, Claire visits Anna, whose affections have not dimmed. However, Claire strongly desires intimacy with a certain very young companion and wishes to arrange the rendezvous at Anna’s lavish residence, which is astonishingly well captured by designer Greg Fritsche’s stunning set.
They say, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and Anna becomes the very embodiment of the phrase. The ensuing negotiations, jockeying for advantage, and general verbal combat oscillate between shocking intensity and profound despair. Frequent mid-monologue comical interruptions by Scottish maid Catherine (Sarah Truly Beers) break the tension while prolonging our suspense. Naughty Mamet!
Anna demeans Catherine by calling her “Mary” or “Nora” or the ultra-abusive “Slavey.” But Beers’s Catherine stands her ground, either out of ignorance or true strength of character– we know not which. In any case, she is the perfect foil for degradations far too harsh for Anna to unleash on an equal like Claire. Offering up Catherine as a verbal punching bag, Mamet can believably demonstrate the extent of Anna’s acrimony.
Mamet’s dialogue is biting, deliciously insulting, and wickedly funny. Any restraint on the part of playwright or actors would ruin Boston Marriage. But fear not, moderation is nowhere in sight– not from Mamet’s pen, not from Gitlin’s able and willing cast.
In the end, Boston Marriage is about compromise, vulnerability and cutting one’s losses. What began with resentment and peaked with an interpersonal war ends with a semblance of civility.
Mamet’s greatest brilliance of all lies in his complete confidence in allowing the dialogue to carry the play. He trusts himself enough to permit his audience to fully appreciate the sexual and emotional intimacy between two women without subjecting them to its graphic manifestation. Sheer genius.
Boston Marriage continues in the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through Saturday, Oct. 30. Not recommended for children due to language and strong emotional content. General admission tickets are $22; $20 for seniors. Student tickets are $12 with valid ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org.