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."
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.
"I adore working with him, I just adore it. He's such a great artist. I've never stopped being in awe of his artistry, and I think he enjoys working with me too. In some ways he's superhuman. I find sometimes that things I might have said appear in the script. I'm just flattered when that happens, but I don't ever help with the writing, of course."
Though her husband denies having a specific inspiration for the play, Pidgeon says, "I think that he wanted to do something for the girls at Atlantic" -- referring to New York's Atlantic Theater Company, founded in 1983 by Mamet and William H. Macy. Steenburgen and Pidgeon are members. Pidgeon added that Mamet began reading two novels by British novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West, "The Edwardians" (1930) and "Orlando" (1928), exploring themes of sexual ambiguity and inspired by Sackville-West's affair with Virginia Woolf. "He just got into it, and then he wrote this play," she says. "He just kept coming home from the office, reading bits of it aloud to me, becoming an Edwardian lady around the house."
Finding her inner Scot
SILVERSTONE'S connection was a little less personal and somewhat more terrifying: "My agent called and said, 'You have an audition for David Mamet in, like, two days,' " she says. "I thought, OK. And then I read it and saw that she was Scottish, and I said: 'You do know that I'm not Scottish, right?' And she was like: 'Just do it!' "
Silverstone did it -- and got the part.
She later received vocal coaching from her English mother, who was born in Scotland. "My mom has inspired a lot of my work," Silverstone says. "When I did 'Clueless,' there were definitely moments when I would just be my mom. And I was channeling what Lucille Ball would be like, and Marilyn Monroe. Cher is actually my fantasy of what these people would be like.
"But my mom is in her 60s, so I started sounding like a Scottish woman in her 60s. But then I took my mom's voice on tape to a real dialogue coach to help me be not like a 60-year-old."
Steenburgen, whose extensive credits include the recent TV series "Joan of Arcadia" and the films "Goin' South," "Time After Time" and "Melvin and Howard," says she jumped when Mamet asked her to be in the play because she'd already heard how enjoyable working on the play had been for original cast member McCann.
"Mary and I did plays together at Atlantic, and she just talked so much about how much fun they had, how they laughed. Even though I hadn't read the play, I knew a lot about it, and so when it came to me it was just like, oh, my God, I can't believe I get to do this."
Critics have had mixed reactions to Mamet's foray into an all-female world. In 2002, New York Post reviewer Donald Lyons described "Boston Marriage" as "akin to Eminem undertaking 'Hamlet' " but called the result "one of the funniest American comedies in years." Ben Brantley of the New York Times was less enthusiastic, calling the play "principally a gymnastic exercise in language" and recommending Mamet stay out of the drawing room forever.
The performers, however, say they are indeed having fun onstage and off. Though the actresses don't share what Steenburgen calls their characters' "healthy disdain" for men, they're quite enjoying themselves without their presence. Steenburgen has been listening to Pidgeon while she drives in to rehearsals from Malibu -- not that they ride together, but Pidgeon is also a recording artist, and Steenburgen has been listening to her CDs.
For her part, Pidgeon says, "I think we just enjoy hanging out together, we have fallen into each other's company in such a natural way." But, she adds, "We all eat too much. That's Alicia's fault. She eats like a lumberjack, and then we all eat as well."
Like the playwright, the women see "Boston Marriage" as a story that transcends sexual orientation. Silverstone observes that Mamet does not want her to waste too much time analyzing whether the maid is aware of the physical relationship of her mistress and Pidgeon's character -- easy enough when playing a person whom Silverstone describes affectionately as "slightly naive and stupid."
"A lot of romantic stories are about heterosexuals, but what difference does it make?" Mamet says. " 'Brokeback Mountain' is a perfect example -- it's a spectacular movie and a great love story, and it doesn't make any difference that it happens to be two guys." In "Boston Marriage," he says, homosexuality "is a plot point that's going to make a difference to the audience, but it doesn't make a difference to the actors."
Steenburgen points out that this is a drawing room comedy, not a bedroom farce. "Because we don't physicalize it -- and maybe I shouldn't say that, because people won't come -- it is about a marriage; the nice thing is that it isn't about a 'gay marriage,' " Steenburgen says. "It's a measure of David's tolerance that he doesn't see a need to qualify it."
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886
Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: March 12
Price: $35 to $69
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or Ticketmaster, (213) 365-3500