Mamet, whose Glengarry Glen Ross this agitated critic still considers to be the outstanding American drama of the '80s, must have had a point in mind when he trudged over to the cabin in the Northeast woods where he does his writing and came up with this new work; Boston Marriage can't merely be the result a case of cabin fever or misplaced fervor. Perhaps, since Burton and Plimpton play lesbian lovers in 1904, Mamet wanted to comment on the artificial modes of expression to which homosexuals often resort as a defense against their alienation from heterosexual society. And perhaps the industrious playwright-director-poet-memoirist-essayist-teacher wished to prove that he can toil in any dramaturgical field he cares to.
In that last regard, he may have been trying to write a play that would subtly mock the kind of petrifying work against which he has stood his oeuvre. Why not pen a drawing room comedy featuring two characters who indulge in epigrammatic chit-chat while a third character, a clumsy maid, provides broader laughs? In it, he'd attempt to come up with dialogue that ranks with the likes of Sheridan and Wilde but also, and at the same time, send up his worthy but less cigar-manly forebears. (Mamet took on the lesser Terence Rattigan in such a way when he adapted and directed The Winslow Boy for the screen and wrestled it to the ground.)
An odd need to compare himself favorably to British playwrights could, perhaps, help explain the following exchange in Boston Marriage:
CLAIRE: Well, what would your Auld Granny say?
MAID: I don't know.
CLAIRE: Well, go home and ask her.
MAID: She's dead.
CLAIRE: She should have taken better care of herself.
That, in a nutshell is the whole of the seemingly endless Boston Marriage. The action unfolds in Anna's newly-refurbished drawing room, a pink wedding-cake of a chamber that Walt Spangler has designed beautifully and Robert Perry has lit just as beautifully by using, among other sources of illumination, some attractive sconces. During two acts, Anna and Claire swan around, trashing men with anachronistic vulgarity. Eventually, Catherine -- in between sobs -- also says something obscene. (Since women in the Boston of 1904 would never have included "shit," "tits," or "fuck" in their circumscribed vocabulary, is Mamet going for some post-modern spin? Must be, but what is it? Did producer George Wolfe actually read this play before agreeing to present it?)
To keep up Mamet's sour ode to artifice, Burton's Anna and Plimpton's Claire are bitchy in only the finest shadings of voice but never divulge any information about who they really are to one another. For that matter, they reveal nothing other than matched talents for being haughty and for wearing the luxurious outfits that Paul Tazewell has gone to town on. (Their nest-of-curls wigs are by the indefatigable Paul Huntley.) The catty folderol in Boston Marriage might possibly work were the play trimmed to a 20-minute sketch and played by Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, who had similar -- but better scripted -- fun in Old Acquaintance.
The friend whom I took to the show wondered if it would have been more palatable had the cast had been asked to play the lines naturalistically. I thought about this for a few seconds and then asked, "Would that have made the play good?" She replied, "It would have been better, but it wouldn't have been good." We had a consensus.