Love and marriage, Frank Sinatra crooned (before it was monstered by Al Bundy), go together like a horse and carriage. “This I tell you, brother; you can’t have one without the other.”
And so the Boston marriage was born, a phrase probably coined, or at least inspired, by Henry James and his novel The Bostonians in the late 1800s. This was a not-uncommon social arrangement in New England at the time, on the cusp of the Progressive Movement, and survived until the flower-powered enlightenment of the 1960s, where two well-heeled women would shack up together in domestic bliss. Here was a well-accepted, well-mannered, broad-brush definition for a variety of relationships — of love, certainly, of sex, perhaps; high society could heedlessly party on while the world wakes up to the ambiguities of the human condition behind closed doors.
As the basis for Wilde-esque comedic farce, the pretence is delicious. But celebrated (or at least prolific) American playwright David Mamet, not surprisingly, gives us more than cheap pratfalls. His Boston Marriage is a genuine bodice-ripping romance, a refined portrait of post-modern relationships in pre-modern times.
And Oscar would still be proud.
Anna loves Claire, truly and deeply; her relationship with a wealthy male aristocrat is purely for financial convenience (and allows her to live the life, with Claire, to which she has become acutely accustomed). Claire loves Anna, too, but has the restless marital itch. She’s met a much younger woman and wants to consummate the crush. She needs a venue, but more than that she seeks her domestic partner’s approval.
And so they bicker and scheme. For about an hour and a half. With long-suffering maid Catherine as the foil, they gash the tension with piercing green eyes and razor-sharp tongues. Hurtfully, hilariously; the conversation and situations farcical yet familiar.
Anna glides gracefully across the stage as the play opens, sits delicately in a chair, but as she shifts nervously, succumbing to the temptation of her stash of wrapped sweets, we watch the carefully manicured airs and graces immediately begin to fray. Pamela Rabe (pictured) is sublime. This is an exceptional study of an older woman clinging increasingly desperately, hilariously, heartrendingly, to love and companionship; keeping up appearances while brooding evermore fervently.
Claire is colder, more calculating, and Margaret Mills’ performance is accomplished if not as dazzling as a result. Sara Gleeson precariously negotiates the Scottish brogue of Catherine, balancing laughs and pathos for the put-upon help with her own love lessons. On opening night, the three of them barely missed a beat.
Mamet is a more diverse storyteller than many give him credit for. Certainly he has specialised in exploring an abject masculinity; plays like American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow and Oleanna (the latter I saw last year in New York with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in the leads, and was frustrated by the uneven rhythm and staccato sermons punctuating the melodrama). Films like State and Main and Wag the Dog are satires that forced audiences to go looking for the truth buried in the high-farce.
Boston Marriage offers more symmetry, more authenticity. The disjointed poetry of Mamet’s prose works with the Victorian-era quarrelling (and set and costume designer Christina Smith, together with Matt Scott’s clever lighting, recreates the so-called gilded era of Americana splendidly). The script is generously funny: these aren’t cheap laughs, they come from smart and sassy dialogue, zingers you won’t see coming. And anyway, most affectingly, the farce of manners and mischief is mere sideshow to a genuinely heartfelt examination of this relationship. Under director Aidan Fennessy, the Melbourne Theatre Company makes it all sing. It is a winning production.
Now, they want more than Boston marriages. They want formal recognition of their love, as profound as any. Amidst a fight for gay marriage, Mamet’s fable is timely and telling. The horse and carriage has bolted.
Love and marriage, love and marriage
It’s an institute you can’t disparage
Ask the local gentry
And they will say it’s elementary
Try, try, try to separate them
It’s an illusion
Try, try, try, and you will only come
To this conclusion
The details: Boston Marriage plays the Fairfax Studio at Melbourne’s Arts Centre until July 24. Tickets are available on the Melbourne Theatre Company website.