What do you get when you cross the distinctive dialogue of David Mamet with a Victorian drawing room comedy?
One obscenely funny, complicated play.
Once dubbed the "poet of the f-word," Mamet's signature clipped tone and often vulgar style makes a surprisingly believable (if occasionally awkward) marriage with the florid turns of phrase that proper ladies in turn-of-the-century America employed. Much of the credit for this surely goes to the actresses playing each half of the play's other marriage, the one mentioned in the title.
Jill Rittinger (Anna) and Tamara Farias Kraus (Claire) both make their Blackfriars debut in the current production of Mamet's Boston Marriage.
The play may take place a century before Massachusetts legally recognized same-sex marriage, but there's no other word to describe the relationship between these two women. Right off the bat, though, the relationship sours after each delivers her own "good news." Anna tells Claire she's provided for them both by taking up as a wealthy merchant's mistress. (It's in the drawing room he's provided her, in fact, that the action takes place.) Not to be outdone, Anna has an announcement of her own: She's fallen in love with another girl, and she wants Claire's help to seduce her.
Conversation between the two descends into name-calling and worse (delivered artillery-like, in rapid succession), their marriage threatening to disintegrate before the audience's eyes. As they spiral downward together, the two lurch back and forth between affectionate pleas and vicious jabs, sometimes a bit too abruptly to be altogether believable.
The entire play is restricted to the drawing room, a restriction that --- like the marriage --- feels by turns both intimate and claustrophobic. The drawing room's exquisite set design --- with its ornate period furniture and elaborate furnishings --- only enhances the role the room plays.
That effect is leavened a bit by the third character, Catherine, the maid (Dawn M. Sargent). Her constant entering and exiting suggests a world beyond the intense bubble in which Claire and Anna seemed locked.
An emotional breath of fresh air, Catherine's presence brings the addition of pathos to the typical slapstick role that servant classes often get stuck with. And her naïveté --- convincingly evoked by Sargent --- is the perfect foil to the cynical innuendo that saturates her superiors' barbs.
Mercifully, the staccato cadence of the play's opening is eventually tempered. The shift comes after a startling revelation at the end of the first act seems to shatter both women's plans for the future. Forced to reconsider their lives and each other, the two women abandon the crisp Mametesque style of dialogue in favor of a more measured, nuanced one --- a shift that suits Rittinger and Kraus's talents.
Here they sort out between them the everyday emotional and personal habits that lie just beneath the obvious sexual overtones. They tackle the mundane stuff that makes up the real substance of marriage. This is the heart of the play, and it demands a considerable breadth of expressiveness, but Rittinger and Kraus prove they're up to the task.
It's a testament to the skill of director Linda Starkweather that this complex subject matter doesn't get overshadowed by the abundant --- and often hilarious --- sexual humor that moves the play along.
You should go if you always wanted to lock David Mamet in a drawing room.
Boston Marriage through October 8 | Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street | $24 | www.blackfriars.org, 454-1260