As a writer, David Mamet is enamored of the con game, and he often plays just such a game with his audiences. So it is in Boston Marriage, his play set in the Victorian era and featuring three female characters.
Right there, you know the con is afoot since Mamet is known for his testosterone-drenched plays and movies that feature a whirling sharknado of macho profanities. But here, most of the language is stilted and arch—sometimes arched over to the breaking point—as two women on the fringe of the upper class and a maid prowl the minefield of their drawing room (lushly rendered by scenic designer Ron Newell).
This play fascinates as much as it confounds, offering many deliciously dense passages that are both amusing and invigorating. But these Mametian verbal joustings go on so long, with very little actually happening (unlike, say, in Glengarry Glen Ross) that one eventually tires from this genteel exercise in conversational sparring.
The title of this show comes from a wink-wink, nudge-nudge term for lesbian relationships back in the day, and the privileged women in this play clearly have something of a history. Anna, in whose house the action is set, is well set up thanks to a male “protector” for whom she provides sex and is rewarded with a handsome income.
Claire is her, ahem, close friend who it turns out has fallen in love with a pretty young girl who is constantly being chaperoned by her mum. So Claire want to use Anna’s house for her seduction of the cute little thing, an idea that fills Anna with jealousy and lots of free-floating rage.
A good deal of her venom is focused on the maid Catherine (a consistently on-point Khaki Hermann), whom the ladies always refer to by other names (Bridie, Mary, etc.). And Anna continually berates the poor, emotionally fragile girl for her Irish background, although Catherine repeatedly says she is Scottish.
That amounts to plenty of fuel for some dangerous games(wo)manship, but since the dewy object of Claire’s affections never appears, we are left with these three who poke and prod each other, in glorious and occasionally anachronistic (“Tell it to the Marines!”) language, for two hours.
Assessing the acting in a Mamet play is often a con game all its own, since the playwright favors non-inflected acting and often writes his material to induce such performances.
As Anna, Shana Beth McGee turns the knife with mean-girl precision when she assaults Catherine. But her relationship with Claire is not so straightforward, with hints piling up in profusion. Laboring under a large, unnatural and ungainly wig, McGee spends too much time staring into the middle distance and not enough lasering in on her buddy Claire.
Cathleen O’Malley’s Claire seems appropriately smitten by the unseen girl. However O’Malley tends to strike attitudinal poses (now distressed, now bemused) that never knit themselves into a believable character.
Of course, believability is not often the goal in a Mamet play. But the words and performances still have to add up to something more than a jumble of clever sentences and elegant postures for a play to be thoroughly involving, and that’s where this production stumbles a bit.
Still, director Christine McBurney makes the most out of many of Mamet's lines, some of which you’d like to take home and put in a velvet-lined box. To wit, when Claire erupts emotionally at Anna at one point and then says, “I’m sorry I was moved to speak with enthusiasm.”
Even though the blocking tends to be hyperactive at times, this is a show that invites you into the interpersonal con games people play. And no one does a con quite like David Mamet.
Through August 4 produced by Mamai Theatre in residence at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts., 216-570-3403