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It's a Mamet for the ladies

The actresses in the drawing room comedy 'Boston Marriage' help the playwright discover his feminine side.

February 05, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

ANYONE who has seen David Mamet's tough-talking, all-male plays -- including "American Buffalo," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Romance" -- might assume that his writing and directing "Boston Marriage," a corseted, turn-of-the-century drawing room comedy with an all-female cast, would be like loosing an American buffalo in a china shop.

But in the opinion of the three actresses who star in Mamet's comedy of manners -- onstage at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse -- no playwright or director can better capture the foibles of oh-so-proper Edwardian society.

"Boston Marriage" is a drawing room comedy with a twist: The phrase is a Victorian euphemism for a long-term relationship between two upper-class unmarried women. The expression did not necessarily imply a lesbian connection, but in this script the relationship of Anna (portrayed by Mary Steenburgen) and Claire (Rebecca Pidgeon) is clearly intimate in every sense of the word. Alicia Silverstone, perhaps best known for her role as Beverly Hills teenager Cher Horowitz in the movie "Clueless," joins them in the cast as Anna's clueless and hyper-emotional Scottish maid.

Behind the scenes, the play also involves another marriage: that of Mamet and Pidgeon, who have been married since 1991. Pidgeon's costars don't mind addressing what could be a touchy issue: acting alongside the playwright and director's wife. "We'll talk right in front of you," Steenburgen says. "It was fascinating at the beginning, and now I just accept it, because I have my relationship with both of them. They relate to each other as artists, with great respect, so it made it very easy for us."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
"Boston Marriage" -- An article in Sunday Calendar on the David Mamet play "Boston Marriage" said that Vita Sackville-West was the author of the novel "Orlando," inspired by her affair with Virginia Woolf. Woolf wrote the novel.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 12, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Virginia Woolf -- An article on the David Mamet play "Boston Marriage" last Sunday said that Vita Sackville-West wrote the novel "Orlando," inspired by her affair with Virginia Woolf. Woolf wrote the novel.

In fact, adds Steenburgen slyly, "If anybody has been a little bit rude or cheeky to David, it's probably been me."

A pre-rehearsal conversation with the actresses at the theater is a "Boston" tea party of sorts -- herbal for Pidgeon and green for Steenburgen, although Silverstone arrives with her own odd teatime choice, miso soup, in a glass jar.

When it comes to directing, Steenburgen offers wickedly, "You've never seen anything until you've seen David Mamet be an Edwardian lady. He always conveys what he means, but he's so ... masculine." The women dissolve into giggles as Steenburgen and Pidgeon debate which of Mamet's girlish moves is more charming, the "little leap" or the "little kick."

Sad to say, a visitor to the theater that day is banished from the rehearsal after only a few minutes without ever getting the chance to compare the leap and the kick. Mamet -- prowling the stage in a woolly black cap that suggests chilly Chicago winds more than a sunny day in L.A. -- is in no mood to be observed for long.

He's equally reluctant to reveal his motivation for writing "Boston Marriage." Mamet -- who writes "all day, every day" -- says in a separate conversation that he had no particular reason for writing a script about women, or Edwardian women, or lesbians. "English departments all over the country have instilled the heresy that artists know what the hell they're doing," he grumbles. "If you wrote a play about three women, you must have set out to write a play about three women. How do you get your ideas? No artist who is honest can answer."

He also doesn't see the work as necessarily a departure from a signature style. "My first plays that came to public notice were about a very rough portion of life in Chicago -- I used to live there," Mamet says. "But I've written many different kinds of people. People talk about Picasso's Blue Period, but they don't talk about later in his life, when he stripped himself naked, put the canvas on the floor, put the colors on and rolled around naked on the canvas; they don't talk about that."

But with the playwright out of the room, Steenburgen, Pidgeon and Silverstone show no reserve in offering their evaluations of Mamet and their guesses as to why he wrote this play.

Pidgeon's presence in the cast is no coincidence; while she has appeared in a range of projects, including the recent Steve Martin film "Shopgirl," she often appears in Mamet's work. She originated her "Boston Marriage" role alongside Felicity Huffman and Mary McCann in 1999 for American Repertory Theatre. "This role was given to me as a present by David," she says. Pidgeon made her Broadway debut in Mamet's "The Old Neighborhood" and has had roles in numerous Mamet plays, movies and TV projects, including the play "Oleanna" and the films "Homicide," "The Spanish Prisoner," "Heist" and "State and Main."

Although she acknowledges that an all-female play represents a departure for her husband, Pidgeon says that at home Mamet's style of speaking is more drawing room than poker table. Despite a reputation for strong language that led author and dramaturge Arthur Holmberg to dub Mamet "the poet laureate of profanity," Pidgeon says, "My husband rarely swears. He is a very eloquent person.

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