Kristen Van Bedegraven, top, and Betty Burdick share a home and a strained relationship in "Boston Marriage."

Sparks fly between women
living together

Is a woman who has sex for money a prostitute? Can love be built on a lie? These questions and others percolate through the Actors Group production of "Boston Marriage." Director David Schaeffer allows the audience to draw its own conclusions about what playwright David Mamet intends the answers to be.

"Boston Marriage"

Presented by the Actors Group, continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 28, at Yellow Brick Studio, 625 Keawe St. Tickets are $15.

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The title is said to come from a Victorian-age euphemism for the living arrangements of women who shared a household without having a conventional male provider. Some such "marriages" might have been strictly economic; others definitely were not. Mamet is writing about the latter.

Anna, the older of the two in this lesbian relationship, has become the lover of a wealthy married man whose "gifts" allow her to maintain the home she keeps with her girlfriend, Claire. Mamet keeps the nature of the relationship between Anna and Claire ambiguous. Claire's comments suggest that the sexual relationship is not as monogamous, nor the emotional ties as strong, as they once were.

Anna's comments suggest otherwise, but no matter. What Claire wants at the moment is for Anna to help her seduce a woman much younger than either of them. Anna finally agrees, on the condition that she can watch the action through a hole in the wall. The trap is set.

Warning: The following paragraph reveals a key piece of the plot.

Unfortunately, when the girl arrives, Anna is wearing an ostentatious necklace that the young woman recognizes as a family heirloom that her father had given her mother!

Betty Burdick (Anna) dominates most of Act 1 with a passionate portrayal of an aging woman in love with the sound of her own voice. Burdick wears the character like a second skin as Anna pontificates on any number of topics. She delivers bon mots, recycles misinformation and mangles Scripture in equal measure. Anna is so prone to exaggeration and melodrama that the audience is eventually left to wonder what is truth and what is illusion.

Kristen Van Bodegraven (Claire) gives a well-rounded performance as the seemingly sweeter half of the couple. Is Claire to blame if Anna wants more from their friendship -- repeat, friendship -- than she's able to give? Mamet allows the audience to take its time in figuring out that Claire is as cunning and manipulative as Anna. Bodegraven uses facial expression and body language to allow glimpses of the conniving soul hidden behind the genteel mask.

Of all the characters in the story, only three are seen (the girl that the older women try to seduce is the subject of conversation but does not appear onstage). The third player is Clara Dalzell, who does a stellar job in the seemingly nothing role of Anna's maid. Dalzell successfully negotiates split-second transitions from heart-rending crying jags to light comedy as the action whipsaws between satire, sit-com bits and farce. The role turns out to be an important and demanding one.

Mamet could easily have written a parallel play about what's happening "off-stage" while we watch Anna and Claire planning their con games in the parlor. Dalzell makes her TAG debut a memorable one as she serves as our conduit to that unseen other world (Dusty Behner will take over of the role when Dalzell returns to school on the mainland midway through the run).

The character of the maid is important for other reasons. Anne's weakness of character is emphasized by the way she verbally abuses the maid. Claire reveals a similar lack of class when she also begins teasing the unfortunate servant.

The show is the type of theater at which TAG excels. The performance space is barely larger than the living room that the set represents, and that makes it easy for the audience to catch the actors' choices in timing, posture, inflection and facial expression. Deciding what's happening with them is another matter. Mamet's dialogue allows for several possibilities at key junctures, and no clear answers are provided.

However, like some of Mamet's better-known work, torrents of words become weapons in a struggle for supremacy.

Anna and Claire are not particularly nice people, but "Boston Marriage" is thought-provoking theater. Don't let the fact that TAG announced this as a "lesbian play" keep you from seeing it.

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