Gay marriage is at the top of the news these days, so the Trap Door Theatre's decision to produce David Mamet's bitter comedy Boston Marriage could not be more timely. Mamet's tale is a faux-Victorian intrigue about two nineteenth-century lesbians whose live-in relationship is considered by society to be platonic. ("Boston marriage" was a term for romantic friendships between unmarried women.) At first glance the subject matter could hardly be further from Mamet's trademark style. The playwright and screenwriter is known for his tough-talking, macho male characters. His critics have decried a perceived misogyny in his plays, especially in Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow. Perhaps as a response to his detractors, Mamet wrote this all-female sendup, spinning out an elaborate sexual ruse amid the florid, Jamesian language of the Victorian era.
Imperious doyenne Anna (Sarah Davida) proudly reports to her long-time lover Claire (Lisa Manuli) that she has duped a gullible wealthy man into giving her a prized necklace and financial assistance that will support both women in style. But Anna's glee turns to pique when she learns that Claire plans an assignation with a new lover, an underage girl. Worse, Claire has the cheek to ask Anna for the use of the house for her tryst. Anna relents in exchange for a chance to watch the seduction. The plan is upended when the girl recognizes Anna's new necklace as her own mother's and flees. Faced with financial ruin and romantic disappointment, the Sapphic duo scramble to recover the sugar daddy and the girl as well.
Mamet's script features a dazzling parody of oh-so-proper Victorian language punctuated by sudden bursts of vivid profanity. The contrast makes for most of the humor in Boston Marriage,which director Stuart Meltzer stages as an arch, tongue-in-cheek burlesque reminiscent of Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. This strategy exploits the skills of Davida, who has a dry comic delivery and excellent timing, wringing quite a bit of humor out of long, deadpan pauses. Meltzer also sets loose Ivonne Azurdia as a slapstick Scottish maid whom Anna continually mistakes as Irish, berating and insulting the poor wretch at every turn. The result is a fizzy entertainment that's a nice vehicle for the young cast -- but it's a misinterpretation of the text, playing it as if it were Oscar Wilde and ignoring Mamet's darker, disquieting undertones.
Mamet isn't merely having a go at Victorian style, he's laying an ambush for politically correct feminism, the very critics who took shots at him for failing to write fully realized female characters. Boston Marriage is Mamet's revenge. Here are fully developed female characters all right, but they are verbose, loathsome preeners, and their treatment of the hard-luck servant is a pointed critique of upper-class feminist hypocrisy. Anna and Claire continually decry their mistreatment by men, then blithely dun the maid with endless humiliations until they realize the weak, subservient young woman is the means to their salvation (a story structure Mamet used in the earlier Speed-the-Plow).
The playwright is practicing his own form of equal opportunity: These women aren't meant to be empathetic; they're as awful as his usual male characters. This production, however, opts to ignore the script's provocations, painting Anna and Claire as nastily funny but ultimately positive heroines, while the maid is a freckle-faced Raggedy Ann of no consequence. The result is a production that's charming and safe, two terms not usually linked with this author. In fact Mamet comes not to praise lesbian feminism, but to bury it.
Despite its shortcomings, the performance serves as a credible showcase for its acting ensemble and production artists. The black-box theater is graced by Michael McKeever's evocative, minimalist Victorian décor and producer Meredith Lasher's costume design, an array of luxuriant Victorian fashions. The production is also a calling card for the company itself. Operating with little institutional or philanthropic support, Trap Door has limited resources but a clear mission. Meltzer and Lasher intend an ongoing collaboration with students at their Miami Dade College north campus base, encouraging young artists to develop their own theater companies. This not only generates gigs for working actors, it serves to excite and inspire a whole new generation of creativity in South Florida.
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