Boston Marriage takes place in a room where the color of the walls changes dramatically, from a lush red-orange down to a pale cherry-blossom pink. (Reviewers who ascribe the change to set designer Walt Spangler are being unfair to lighting designer Robert Perry.) The heavily noticeable color alterations match the shifts in emotional temperature, as if the action were happening in a room-size thermometer or polygraph. This exteriorizing is superfluous, since Karen Kohlhaas’s staging is all heavily gesticulated emotive signals. It’s the late 19th century in Mametworld, and no sentence may be spoken without semaphoring.
The chameleonic walls belong to the home of Anna (Kate Burton) and Claire (Martha Plimpton), two youngish women living in what the era euphemistically called a “Boston marriage”—a household maintained by two unmarried women, which might or might not have been assumed to be sexual. It’s unclear whether sex comes into Claire and Anna’s relationship, though Love certainly does, in great gushes of ornate language, along with its flip side, Hate, which frees up their tongues for catty insults, plus occasional bursts of more familiar Mamet-style profanity. The latter sounds pretty improbable jostling up against the high-flown phraseology of the rest, which suggests a prolonged but inattentive immersion in Henry James. It adds to the event’s overall effect of being a charade, with little contemporary girls dressed up in clothes from great-great-grandmommy’s trunk.
The action starts with Anna triumphant; she’s just acquired a wealthy male adorer willing to keep her in high style, with plenty to spare for Claire, who isn’t jealous because she’s simultaneously become infatuated with a young girl whom she proposes to bring into the house. Naturally, nothing that good can last. The two new entanglements turn out to have a family relationship; a touch of unwise daytime accessorizing brings on a crisis; and before you can say “Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” triumph has turned into flight from financial ruin and legal peril, though not before the ladies nearly embark on a career as fake mediums. Throughout, the only sensible person in the house is the new maid, so disdained by the couple that Anna can barely remember her name, let alone that she’s Scottish and not Irish.
Some of this is tolerable foolery; some is interestingly resonant seriousness. Most of it, though, is archness posturing in a void, as if the 1890s were not a different time but a different planet, and women not an alternative gender to men but a different species altogether. Characters in Mamet plays tend to be isolated from the larger reality around them—his lack of interest in social history as a source of dramatic material is near total—but they usually drop a clue or two that help you place them. Few have seemed as insular as Claire and Anna. Where they come from, what they do all day, how they lived before Anna went admirer-hunting, are all completely blank. Granted, we’re talking about a time when “respectable” women’s activities were highly restricted. But that’s precisely why those tough-jawed spinsters in Boston marriages accomplished things—mainly in the cultural arena, true, but also as pioneers in law, medicine, education, and politics. American women didn’t win the right to vote in 1920 by osmosis; the gals in Boston marriages had been organizing and petitioning for more than half a century.
The puzzle of the play is why Mamet bothered. The subject matter doesn’t appear to hold any interest for him, except as a cue to replay old themes. The contrived plot, handled uncertainly in both tone and action, is always on the verge of lapsing into outright farce. The experiment of writing a work wholly about women, given the normal feminist view of Mamet, may have been a major temptation, and may explain the jittery tone; the piece seems alternately like a tribute to women and a sneering gibe at them.
The strongest lure, however, must have been the linguistic challenge: Could fuckin’ David fuckin’ Mamet write like a demurely eminent Victorian? Sometimes he can, and much of the text rings true. The real complaint, though, is that the language never sounds like people talking, not even people in a play; it sounds like people mimicking what they imagine the diction of a 19th-century play to be. Mamet’s dialogue has always had a formalized streak, but till now the artifice has always been his own. Wilde and Henry James are dead; David Mamet’s alive. Guess whose plays I’d rather see him write.
The curlicued language and the triple-underscored production make Boston Marriage heavy work for the three actresses. Burton, catlike and ornately languid even in fury, gets away with it most easily; Plimpton juts her strong chin and does her powerful best. Only Arden Myrin, burdened with a difficult accent she can’t sustain and a role dense with pointlessly mixed motives, seems utterly at a loss.
Living in present-day Moscow, the three biological sisters in Janusz Glowacki’s The Fourth Sister have nothing but the kind of social-historical problems that Mamet ignores. Russians are still Chekhovian, flipping instantly from manic joy to silent melancholy, while their petty cares and giant heartbreaks cross everybody else’s, till every cramped apartment’s an emotional minefield. Nobody has any money except the Mafiya; the violence that goes with it can touch any life in Moscow. Nor is there any escape: The three girls’ “fourth sister,” who’s really an orphan boy they’ve decked out in drag to impersonate a child prostitute in an American documentary on the city, gets to fly to Hollywood and appear on the Oscar telecast to boot. But even that doesn’t improve life. Americans—especially Russians who’ve settled in America—turn out to be vicious, betraying, violent pimps just like their Muscovite counterparts. The one person who actually keeps his word to any of the sisters is a nice young fellow who’s smuggling black-market arms to Islamic extremists; don’t expect him to end happily.
Sounds accurate enough, doesn’t it? Glowacki’s caught the chaotic spirit of life in contemporary Moscow, and in his best scenes he’s grounded it in a tangle of human feelings that has the tensile strength of the original Chekhovian weave. The only thing he hasn’t done is turned the material into a play. Chekhov concealed but never neglected his dramatic action; Glowacki just paints the condition. Now it’s funny, now it’s sad, now it’s humiliating, now it’s horrifying. But the condition never changes, and the people never evolve as a result of it; they just plod on from episode to episode. Both the gangster and the moviemaker business give off a faintly rancid whiff of day-old commercial goods, and the play’s constant jump-cutting and crisscrossing, though well handled in Lisa Peterson’s production, tend to look more like glitzy showboating than dramaturgic economy.
It’s really too bad, because at his most responsible, Glowacki’s a powerfully impressive writer, and Peterson, whose productions of less flashy authors tend to look obnoxiously mannered, is wholly attuned to his style, producing an unpressured, steady flow of visual events and a battery of extremely fine performances: Suzanne Shepherd as a motherly neighbor, Lee Pace as her entrepreneurial son, Bill Buell as the girls’ military father, Alicia Goranson and Jessica Hecht as the tenderest and the most heart-bruised of the sisters, and Steven Rattazzi as the double-dealing documaker are all doing first-class work. But the effect’s like that of a Russian government office: Items get shifted smartly from desk to desk, but to no avail, because the office has no actual function.
Tim Miller, in contrast, has many actual functions: confessional, narrational, communal, political, and then some. He means to stimulate your erotic sense and your imagination, provoke you into rethinking your premises, nail you on the issues, and show you a good time. The best part is that he actually accomplishes all these things to some degree: Miller is what you call an effective artist—all the more so because he doesn’t barrage you with effects. All he has to go on is himself: his queer body, his voice, his sensibility. This can leave scars; in Body Blows, assembled from pieces old and new, he literally shows you one or two of them. The squeamish are advised to hide their heads during the sequence with the circular saw—or would be, if there were the remotest possibility of Miller harming another human being. But that isn’t in him; he’s too busy fighting a government that systematizes harm, a fact of which he has again become living proof. One reason Miller’s necessary, just now, is that this is the last time you’ll see him as a resident of the U.S.: Eight years with the same American spouse still won’t get an Australian a green card if the couple are of the same gender. So Miller and his lover Alistair will reside in London as of February. Be smart and catch him while he’s here.