It's easy to imagine David Mamet and his actor buddy William H. Macy engaging in some manly bonding activity like darts and talking about their wives (actresses Rebecca Pidgeon and Felicity Hoffman).
"Why don't you write them a play?" Macy might have asked. "Then they'll stop complaining about how there are no roles for women 'of a certain age' and we can drink our beers in peace. Besides, all those critics say you don't know how to write female characters. Show 'em they're wrong."
"Fuck the critics," Mamet comments, puffing on his cigar.
"Of course," Macy replies. "Write the play anyway."
And so in 1999 an unusual David Mamet script appears: Boston Marriage. Featuring three female characters and set in a drawing room circa 1900, the premiere stars Pidgeon and Hoffman as Anna and Claire, two middle-aged ladies involved in an off-and-on lesbian relationship. Imagine The Importance of Being Earnest meets Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and you'll get a sense of the intriguing mix of high vocabulary and lowbrow humor the play serves up. It's awkwardly constructed with an intermission after just 35 minutes ("What, we just sat down!"), but the intrigue, betrayal and passion are pure Mamet, alluringly attired in Victorian accoutrement.
Cut to St. Louis circa 2000, where it's easy to imagine husband-and-wife team Larry Mabrey and Erin Kelley deciding to use this play to launch their new theater company, Avalon: well-known playwright; juicy roles for women; one location, a couple of easy costume changes and no working showers required.
Director Mabrey stages the play in the round, placing audience on all sides of the action. There are several advantages to this choice: No large, expensive scenery has to be built, and the audience is able to see even the tiniest detail of facial expression -- which focuses all attention on the actors. Here is where the marriage of script and production begins to sour. In the opening moment, when Claire (Kelley) returns to Anna (Meme Wolff) after some period of absence, the actresses give no indication of any previous relationship. While the words provide a controlled framework for their conversation, the underlying tension needs to be portrayed. The play is really more a tribute to Chekhov than to Wilde; the words float on the surface of a tempestuous river, and it's the underlying current that must surface for the story to make sense.
While the schemes and plot twists of this Marriage would not be easy to follow in the best of productions, the staging hinders the intelligibility of the piece even more. In a play that is almost Shakespearean in its use of archaic vocabulary, the audience needs to be able to listen. But when someone is moving, the eye is more engaged than the ear. Mabrey never lets the women sit for more than a moment; it's almost as if they're playing musical chairs. While some lovely stage pictures are created, the thread of the plot is often lost.
Emma Cullimore's costumes and John Armstrong's lighting provide solid support for the production. Lynn Marie Zimmers, as the verbally abused Scottish maid, is beautiful but often hard to understand through her thick brogue. Kelley and Wolff have several delightful scenes, including a marvelous discourse about pie and a discussion of braving prison life together. But ultimately the stakes aren't high enough for either of them, and the play becomes more about style than substance. Perhaps as the show's run continues, the play's emotional undercurrent will pull the actors in, letting them up for air to speak crucial truths and washing away unnecessary distractions.