Wit and Farce: Boston Marriage

Ellen Sandbeck took in "Boston Marriage" in Duluth and recommends the experience highly.

Cheryl Skafte, Crystal Schultz, and Julie Asahay

This Saturday I had the great pleasure of watching a performance of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage at Renegade Theater in Duluth. The play is wonderfully written–it roars along and only very occasionally slows down to a dreamy, romantic walking pace. The “Victorian” dialogue is alternately lively, amusing, insulting, petulant, and sardonic, and is salted with an occasional anachronistic string of modern epithets. (This is after all, a play written in the late twentieth century) The near-capacity crowd howled, screamed, and shouted with laughter–it’s lucky that Mamet allowed us time to breathe, or we might have suffered a few fatalities on Saturday night.

The play is set in the late-nineteenth-century New England living room of a beautiful but aging woman named Anna (Julie Ahasay). Anna’s “dearest friend” Claire (Christa Schultz) soon enters and is so astonished at the expensive and elegant furnishings of her friend’s home that she wonders aloud whether she’s got the right house. The women’s situation is rapidly revealed: they are involved in a “Boston marriage” (period slang for a lesbian affair); Anna has “lost her virtue” and found herself a wealthy protector, who has provided Anna with a beautiful wardrobe, a luxurious house, elegant furnishings (which Anna has chosen in order to please Claire) and a stunningly beautiful necklace “big enough to choke a horse” (this necklace will later prove to be a major complication for Claire’s desires).

Anna is all but wagging her tail in her obsequious efforts to please “her oldest, dearest friend.” Claire uneasily and stiffly reveals that she has some news of her own: she is in love, and eventually admits that the object of her affection is a young girl. Anna’s shock, dismay, and grief register so strongly in Ahasay’s bearing that one needn’t see her face to know it.

This is not just a play of clever words; it’s a drawing-room farce, and in keeping with the genre, the actresses emote with everything at their disposal. Julie Ahasay’s mobile face and flexible, expressive body are perfect for her expansive role. Schultz’s brittle, occasionally nearly spastic bearing deftly illustrates her character, whose inflexible selfishness occasionally erupts in a geyser of devastating insults targeted at Anna’s vulnerabilities: her age and her looks.

These women’s lives are circumscribed by their lack of opportunity in the larger world, because all the space is taken up by their common enemy: Men. Their lives are shaped by their relationship to these usurpers. Claire considers Anna a traitor because she has taken a protector, though Anna clearly considers her relationship with the man to be merely an irresistible financial opportunity. The larger, deeper betrayal is certainly Claire’s, because it is emotional..

Boston Marriage is about the relationships that are possible between equals (Anna and Claire) and the relationships that are possible (or impossible?) between those who are different. Though Anna and Claire have spats and then repent, they are equal. Their witty angst is punctuated at irregular intervals by Anna’s Scottish maid, Catherine (Cheryl Skafte) who tends to burst onto the scene whenever her “betters” are at the height of emotional intensity, and these intrusions are never taken kindly. Though repeatedly informed otherwise, Anna never calls her maid by her proper name, but by a variety of others: Molly, Nora, or Mary; the only name that seems to repeat is “Slavey,” which crops up towards the end of the play, when Anna’s carefully feathered nest is beginning to blow apart around her.

Anna essays vicious, hilarious, and frequent attacks during which she educates her maid about the shortcomings of “You Irish” (Catherine’s staunch protestations that she is Scottish fall on permanently deaf ears). These deficiencies usually boil down to: “Do you know why you people perished in the famine? It was from a criminal lack of concern for the life of the soil!”

Cheryl Skafte’s Scottish brogue was impeccable, and she brought comic timing and even a hint of dignity to her role as Catherine. The maid furnished the only hint of hope that society might eventually bridge the gulfs between the sexes and classes. Her humanity was evidenced by her attempts to comfort the other two women in their troubles (even though they taunted her unmercifully and were comically oblivious to the fact that the maid’s troubles–homesickness, the possibility of pregnancy— were real, and serious). The maid was the only character who had even the most tenuous of relationships with the outside world, and most of her entrances were made in order to announce some incursion of reality into the nearly hermetically sealed household: a letter had been delivered; the “stove mechanic” had arrived to fix the stove; she had broken a plate; the cook had quit.

Because the language of the play is pseudo-Victorian, laden with anachronisms such as “reticule”, “fantods”, and “rodomontade”, (many thanks to the director, John Martin Pokrzywinski, for including a glossary in the program)– it took me a while to realize that the two main characters, though upper class, were woefully undereducated; Claire remarks: “I never could abide by learning. It seems so pushy!” These women’s main amusements were arguing with each other and cleverly torturing the maid. (Perhaps television plays a more vital role in a civil society than we thought! As Mamet once remarked when asked where his famously stinging dialogue came from, “In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to while away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, based solely on our ability to speak the language viciously. That’s probably where my ability was honed.”)

Boston Marriage is an unusual play for Mamet, who we know for male outings like Glengarry Glen Ross. His courage and risky invention are well served here by this superbly acted production. Sue Boorsma’s costumes—so vividly alive as to almost constitute characters in themselves—are also winners.

Lucky for you, there’s another weekend to see the show. Dates and location? January 18-20 at 7 pm. Renegade Comedy Theater, 222 E. Superior St., Duluth, Minnesota. Tickets and information: (218) 722-6775 or (888) 722-6627, or see website below.