You'd be forgiven if you're not familiar with the phrase "Boston marriage." It hasn't exactly been bandied about much in the last few decades. But back in 19th-century New England, not coincidentally home to several women’s colleges, the phrase emerged to describe the long-term, monogamous relationships between single, independent women.
If it sounds like code for “lesbians,” well, it pretty much was and is. It’s important, though, to note that while Boston marriages were romantic in terms of emotional intensity and intimacy, they weren’t necessarily sexual. But to be clear, the relationship between Anna and Claire of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, now being mounted by Dirt Dogs Theatre Co., is all of the above.
When the play opens, Claire is returning to Anna after a “prolonged absence.” During her time away, Anna has gained the favor of a wealthy “protector” who’s given her an account with a dressmaker, an emerald heirloom to wear around her neck, and a monthly stipend in exchange for “consultations.” Anna is excited for Claire to see her newly decorated drawing room, and to tell her that they can now live comfortably off this man’s money for the foreseeable future. But Claire has a surprise too. To Anna’s dismay, Claire tells her she’s in love. Not only that, but she’d like to use Anna’s home for an afternoon tryst. Needless to say, Anna’s none too happy, but eventually relents on a condition that’s best left as a surprise. Deal struck, it appears that despite the hit Anna and Claire’s relationship has taken, it’s all going to work out. That is, until Claire’s young lady friend arrives and sees – dun dun dun – her mother’s emerald necklace around Anna’s neck.
Boston Marriage is generally seen as Mamet’s attempt at proving he could write women characters. If you’re familiar with his oeuvre, then you can probably understand why, certainly in 1999 when the play premiered, that was a question. Despite the Victorian-era language Mamet employs, and its sense of propriety, Anna and Claire are as unfiltered, mean, and catty as Mamet’s men. (And don’t worry: The so-called “poet laureate of profanity” still makes use of some well-placed, off-color words.) With Mamet-ian dialogue present in full force, it’s important for an actor to come to play. And this production has three that are more than ready for the challenge.
As Anna, Malinda L. Beckham is a revelation. Anna is strong, jealous, witty, cruel, desperate, manipulative, funny – and Beckham conveys it all with ease. From her precise and exaggerated diction and the delicate lilt of her voice, to the way she would look into the distance, eyes darting side to side, Beckham embodied Anna from start to finish. Melissa J. Mayo’s Claire is a worthy adversary in the two’s tête-à-têtes. Mayo is more pinched in her haughtiness, with piercing eyes and a knack for the droll. Claire is more likely to translate Anna’s riffs to a confused party and less likely to be as wordy, but she’s every bit as cutting and clever.
Not enough can be said for Beckham and Mayo’s skill at tackling Mamet’s dialogue. Though certainly anachronistic at points, Mamet’s onerous dialogue is planted in the past, in that space where you certainly recognize and understand it, but some of the phrases and words sprinkled in might give you pause. (Do yourself a favor and read the glossary kindly provided in the program before the lights go down.) From their first volleys to their last, it’s clear that Beckham and Mayo have a firm grasp on the flow, the rhythm, the timing and the lyricism of Mamet’s words.
Rounding out the three-person cast is Jenna Morris as Catherine, Anna’s much abused maid. In the short moments between being demeaned (Anna’s refusal to call her by her name or acknowledge that she’s Scottish, not Irish), insulted (“You are unwanted and the tea is cold”) or outright threatened (“Go away or I’m going to have you killed”), Morris really establishes her character as not just pitiable, but as someone whose eyes and ears are open. Morris also gets a couple of cracks in herself.
The rapport built between these actors – between Beckham and Mayo, and between Morris and the two – is truly the star of the show. Coming in second, though, is Beckham’s set.
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Yes, and just in time for Valentine’s Day, it’s Beckham’s set, a decadent – and very red – treat for the eyes. There’s no doubt about it – for this drawing room comedy, Beckham went all out for the drawing room. It’s flowery, shiny, fruity, sparkly, tassel-y and yes, chintzy. Well detailed and brightened with pops of aqua, Beckham’s beautifully gaudy set matches Mamet’s heightened, stylized dialogue perfectly. The characters’ black and white ensembles, also from Beckham, are an interesting choice, but they certainly stand out against the colorful set. Even better are Beckham’s choices for “couture of the paranormal,” the reveal of which would be at home in any sitcom featuring two women prone to harebrained schemes (Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, Edina and Patsy, etc.).
Kris Phelps’s lighting designs further enhance the set, subtly shifting in key moments, while Elizabeth Nguyen’s sound design, from the jaunty song that opens the show to the most realistic off-stage clatter I’ve heard yet, add even more to the proceedings.
Boston Marriage is short in narrative and long in minutes, which means it loses steam during both the second and third of the play’s three scenes. After a brisk, tight first act, director Linda Phenix’s hands are tied a bit for the second. But if you can hang on through those moments, you will be rewarded with what is ultimately a heck of a good production with excellent performances and a set that makes you feel like you’re walking into a candy store.
Performances continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and February 18; and 2 p.m. Sundays at The MATCH, 3400 Main. Through February 23. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit dirtdogstheatre.org or matchouston.org/events/2019/boston-marriage. $25 (matinees and Industry Monday are pay-what-you-can).