Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mamet in the middle

It's always painful watching a really terrible production, but it's positively excruciating watching good actors suffer through a bad play that's been directed even more badly.  You can see the realization that they're bombing slowly register in their eyes, but of course it's not their fault - and none of the actual perpetrators of the disaster are on hand to take the blame, either.  That awareness may be what makes the New Rep production of Boston Marriage, a play that I can only describe as David Mamet's misbegotten love child with Oscar Wilde, particularly agonizing - sitting through it is like watching three talented actresses slowly crucified before your eyes.  And unlike Jesus, who only had to go the distance once, these ladies are going to have to endure this artistic Golgotha six times a week.

Frankly, it's even painful to review a bomb like this, but . . .  well, I thought about skipping out on my duty last night, but today I figured, "Oh, just hold your breath, Garvey, and write it as fast as you can."  So here goes nothing.

Okay, first things first - who's to blame.  Perp #1 is David Mamet (above left) who in mid-career supposedly decided to pen a riposte to critics who claimed he couldn't write roles for women.  But instead of contradicting their argument, he confirmed it.  For the "characters" (and I use that term loosely) of Boston Marriage are certainly not women.  I'm not sure what they are, to be honest - the closest thing I can come up with is "Henny Youngman's idea of gay men in Edwardian drag."  For not only did Mamet decide to shake up his career crisis by writing for women, he also chose to write in a style he thought of as a facsimile of Edwardian wit, although it comes off as a florid undergraduate spoof of something said undergraduate doesn't really understand (and perhaps has a secret contempt for).  Somehow I get the impression the playwright thought hilarity would ensue from simply mentioning words like "reticule" and "rodomontade" - that is when the audience wasn't rolling in the aisles from jokes like "I was stroking your muff when your parts came."  But what can I say, he was so wrong.  I admit some of these lines do get laughs, but they're of the "OMG, that's the weirdest one yet!" variety.  (Fans of The Room take note - it occurs to me you could really enjoy this production.)

But anyway - I swore I'd write this as fast as I could.  So - the plot is about conniving lesbians.  Okay?  'Nuff said!

On to Perp #2 - Kate Warner, artistic director of the New Rep.  WHAT was she thinking?? We thought she had an erring eye when she chose Mister Roberts for her opener last season, but now I'm beginning to wonder if she doesn't have a kind of fever that comes on annually, and only affects her play choice for September.  For it bears mentioning, I think, that Boston Marriage has been seen twice already in the Boston area - once at the A.R.T., and once at Merrimack - and nobody has been asking to see it again (particularly not the people who saw it the first time).   I'm not about to give up on Ms. Warner - there were several good shows at the New Rep last spring; but I would advise subscribers to stick to the offer that allows you to choose your own plays - and give a thought to red-pencilling the one in September.

Finally, Perp #3 - director David Zoffoli.  Wow, where to begin.  Zoffoli inflates this logorrheic bamboozlement into a two-hour skit that might have shamed Carol Burnett and Ryan Landry.  I've heard from other critics that with a lighter touch, the script is more bearable - not actually good, but bearable.  But here everything is telegraphed, or over-acted, or even flat-out shouted; the actresses literally brace themselves at times, legs planted far apart, the better to holler at each other from opposite ends of the overlit, gargantuan set.   I'm not kidding when I say I've never seen anything like this on a professional stage.  It's up there (or down there) with the worst pieces of direction I've ever encountered in my life.  (Just as an aside, while the design of the show is quite bizarre, it does all kind of hang together; the designers did their job, such as it is.)

As for the actresses - well, connoisseurs of the arcane may find some intrigue in the fact that as Mamet's warring lesbians, Debra Wise and Jennie Israel are both incredibly broad and campy, but in slightly different keys.  Wise is  entirely presentational, while poor Israel looks like she's being forced to violate something like a characterization.  Both are very good actresses generally, so nobody should hold this show against them, but it is interesting to note their contrasting body language as the deadly shenanigans grind into their second hour: Israel looks increasingly guilty, Wise all the more determined to survive, no matter what.  Meanwhile sidekick Melissa Baroni is just as schticky, but as she's playing schtick to begin with, she probably comes off the best of the three.

At any rate, eventually the show does end - and the run will, too, eventually.  There's a light at the end of the tunnel for everyone.  So here's to you, ladies!  And now I have to go have a drink.

That which does not kill us only makes us stronger! the talented actresses of Boston Marriage agree.

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