From first scene to last, New Ground Theatre's production of Boston Marriage is an almost total misreading of David Mamet's 1999 work. As usual, New Ground's decision to tackle offbeat and challenging material is commendable, but its latest offering is so wrong-headed in execution that it makes you understand why audiences often shy away from the offbeat and challenging.
Essentially a modern, bitchy romantic comedy in period garb, the play explores the tumultuous relationship between Claire (Susan Dragon McDonald) and Anna (Tracy Pelzer-Timm), whose long-term love affair has been disrupted by Claire's involvement with a younger woman and Anna's attachment to a male "protector." Stakes are raised, tempers fly, and Anna's maid, Catherine (Emily Burr), suffers much abuse as the women love and loathe one another in equal measure.
Boston Marriage features an enjoyably nasty torrent of one-liners, and pulling them off requires that the leads are played in the spirit of Mamet's traditionally male hucksters, as soulless puppets to be yanked around at whim. In a sharp, vicious Mamet comedy such as Speed-The-Plow or Sexual Perversity in Chicago, you don't have to see the protagonists as sympathetic figures of depth, because the playwright sure doesn't. His characters might suffer, but Mamet isn't concerned with making us believe in them. In the end, the characters aren't the point. Mamet is the point.
In Boston Marriage, the women's lesbian relationship isn't employed symbolically and isn't, I don't think, meant to signify any particular attitudes. I assume Mamet just knew that hearing "refined" Victorian ladies spit expletives at each other could be pretty damned funny; the fact that his characters are women would be arbitrary if it didn't yield such good jokes.
I'm spending an inordinate amount of space on Mamet and the script itself to give a proper indication of everything that New Ground's production gets wrong. In place of stylization, director Lora Adams takes a more lifelike, drawing-room-comedy approach, and instead of playing the verbally dexterous comedy with speed, it's slowed down to a meditative crawl. This proves to be a very bad choice.
At the production I attended, Mamet's jokes went all but unnoticed, because the pseudo-realistic presentation - as if Claire and Anna could be confused with humans! - caused the repartee to no longer make sense. Nearly every line is delivered with an "oh bother let's have some more tea" air of weary resignation; whether discussing love affairs or material for their couch, Anna and Claire sound colossally bored with each other, and I quickly became bored with them.
You can definitely hear where the script's punchlines are supposed to be. Interestingly, Adams has directed her performers, Pelzer-Timm especially, to drop their suggested accents with every verbal jab, and while this is intriguing - The Age of Innocence as performed by a women's correctional facility - the dialogue beyond the jokes has lost its meaning, and Adams' approach just makes it look like the performers are dropping character and going for an easy laugh. Consequently, the cast appears amateurish, and the jokes still didn't play.
Meanwhile, the women's relationship has been treated with too much overt Dignity; a heaviness of spirit lingers over the production, and you get the vague sense that Anna and Claire are characters we're meant to admire. Somehow, in this Boston Marriage, a sharply comedic battle-of-the-same-sexes has been turned into a confused, unsatisfying melodrama, one so misinterpreted that if you'd never seen a Mamet play before this one, I'm not sure you'd ever want to again.
Boston Marriage continues Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Rivermont Collegiate in Bettendorf. For tickets or more information, visit (http://www.newgroundtheatre.org) or call (563)326-7529.