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 not-uncommon social arrangement in New England at the time, 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 prolific American playwright David Mamet, not surprisingly, gives us more than cheap pratfalls. His Boston Marriage — the latest Melbourne Theatre Company production — 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. 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. 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 sweets, we watch the carefully manicured airs and graces immediately begin to fray. Pamela Rabe is sublime; an exceptional study of an older woman clinging desperately to love and companionship. The three-hander cast — with Margaret Mills and Sara Gleeson — balance the laughs with pathos and barely missed a beat on opening night.

Mamet’s script is generously funny: these aren’t cheap laughs, they come from smart and sassy dialogue, zingers you won’t see coming. But the farce of manners and mischief is mere sideshow to a genuinely heartfelt examination of relationships. It’s great fun.

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.

Each day, Crikey will suggest one thing to do for the night ahead, once you’ve clocked off from work and free time beckons. It might be an opera to put on the mink stole for, theatre to see, a TV show to download. Got a Daily Proposition of your own? Email [email protected] (First Dog merchandise for any reader whose piece gets published!).

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey