Love and war

Theatre Rhino tackles David Mamet's Boston Marriage
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Planet Mamet is normally a very manly-man's world, where alpha males growl, snap, and try to steal one another's bones. Women either similarly play rough or become obstacles to the overweening guy-versus-guy competition. Ergo, Boston Marriage is an anomaly: seldom staged since its 1999 premiere, this is a most atypical David Mamet play in that the characters are all female, the language florid, and the tone giddy — even, well, campy.

It probably seems more so than hitherto in John Fisher's Theatre Rhinoceros staging. Mamet has certainly written other comedies: American Conservatory Theater's recent revivals of Sexual Perversities in Chicago (1974), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), and Speed-the-Plow (1988) highlighted their hilarity. But it is inherently cruel humor, the kind you know precedes some character's genuine evisceration.

Boston Marriage is different — not kind, exactly (or at all), but larky and farcical rather than predatory. Even though it ends on the author's frequent knife-twisting note of revealing just who's conned who, this arch period fancy doesn't have his usual hunt-or-be-hunted severity. It's not out for blood — it's just bitchy.

The 19th-century term Boston marriage referred to spinsters of means who chose to cohabit. For platonic companionship, society once politely presumed; because they're muff-diving from the shores of Lesbos, we assume now. Alas, no Kinsey poll exists to reveal just how much either public myth translated into private practice. "Woman of fashion" Anna (a sublimely self-absorbed Trish Tillman) is thrilled to greet "you, my et cetera!" Claire (Alexandra Creighton), just back from an unexplained "prolonged absence." The latter is nonplussed to discover her housemate has redecorated their drawing room in flower-patterned rose chintz — Jon Wai-keung Lowe's set design is vivid — but strangely neutral when Anna announces the home makeover was paid for by a wealthy male "protector" now keeping her as mistress.

Viewing this as a sacrifice she's made to secure Claire's and her material comfort, Anna is anything but neutral when her "dearest one" announces she too has news: she is in love, with a "young person" of the female persuasion. Sugar turns to spite in a blink, as Anna snipes, "I expect thanks — I get nothing but the tale of your new rutting!" — with worse soon to come from both sides. Compounding the offense, Claire has a favor to ask: the use of their house for a rendezvous with her chickadee this very afternoon. At first it seems Anna will allow that "vile assignation" over her dead body. But she's not above negotiation, or trickery, or even voyeuristic curiosity. When the guest arrives, however, things take an unexpected turn that leaves both ladies frantic at the possibility of ruin.

Authorial inspiration flags a bit in the second half as the characters go off on too many conversational digressions and scheme their salvation in I Love Lucy terms. But Fisher's honed staging and excellent cast (nicely clad in period frocks by Jeremy Cole) work agreeably throughout. Mamet pours on the antiquated phraseology ("You Visigoth!," "O land of Goshen!") but also indulges in some surprisingly crass (and funny) double entendres. There's no end of hilarity in Anna's abuse of maid Catherine (Pamela Davis, doing a neat parody of a classic stage type), at whom she spews endless anti-Irish condescension — never mind that the poor woman is Scottish.

Boston Marriage's characters may be far from three-dimensional, but they're not supposed to be; they inhabit a universe as artificially stylized as that of the "lesbians" in Jean Genet's plays (or Holly Hughes's).

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