Felicity Huffman on the mirthful Mamet
by Anne Marie Donahue
David Mamet has written a Late Victorian drawing-room comedy. Yes, you read
that right. And yes, this is the very same Mamet who won a Pulitzer for
Glengarry Glen Ross, that gritty play turned film about a bunch of
sweaty, conniving foul-mouthed guys in the real-estate biz, the very same Mamet
who wrote Speed-the-Plow about similarly down-and-dirty guys in
Hollywood. In Boston Marriage, which opens this Friday in its
world-premiere ART production at the Hasty Pudding Theatre, the guy count is a
goose egg. Set in fin de siècle Boston, and directed by Mamet himself,
the play explores the loving but vexed relationship between two women, Anna and
"Yes, it really is a drawing-room comedy, along the lines of Oscar Wilde,"
confirms Felicity Huffman, who plays Anna, a far cry from her regular
television role as the brash Dana Whitaker on Sports Night. We get to
wear dresses and corsets and put our hair up. There are reticules and parasols.
And the writing is really funny: very urbane, very cutting, very witty, and
very light. But it's also a love story, a duet between two women [Mamet's wife,
Rebecca Pidgeon, is Claire], and I think Mary McCann, who plays the maid, is
the chorus. It's the kind of classic play where everything is going along fine,
then it gets turned around and upside down before finally coming to a new
Asked whether the twists of the relationship turn on sex, Huffman hedges. "Now
we have such clear delineations, but back then things were much less defined.
Anna and Claire are very, very close friends. Yes, they're lesbians, and their
relationship is sexual in nature. But the play is more about the marriage,
about the negotiations that go on, about what each person needs and what
they're willing to give up. What makes it deep and interesting is that they're
outside of society, on the fringe. They have to figure out how they're going to
keep themselves in the manner to which they are accustomed, how they're going
to survive, not just in society but within their marriage, within their
Huffman, who's been working with Mamet for nearly 15 years, acknowledges, "Of
course, he's never written anything like it. But people who think he couldn't
possibly pull off this kind of thing are just pigeonholing him. I know it's
unexpected, but I hope that people will show up just expecting an amusing night
at the theater, without preconceptions. I hope they'll appreciate it for what
it is and not automatically view it in terms of the history of his other
Huffman also argues that Mamet's reputation as a man's man who writes few good
roles for women is a bum rap. "He writes difficult, challenging roles for
women, but he also writes difficult, challenging roles for men. No one's the
hero. There wasn't a hero in The Cryptogram, but it has a brilliant part
for a woman" -- a part that earned Huffman an Obie in 1997. "No one's the hero
in Speed-the-Plow," which took her to Broadway. "He gives his women,
along with the men, really difficult jobs to do, and you can get so mad at his
women. In Speed-the-Plow, for example, the only female character has the
tough and often maligned job of speaking the truth. So I don't think it's true
that Mamet doesn't write well for women. He's certainly written well for me."
According to Huffman, Mamet wrote Boston Marriage, at least in part,
because he so enjoyed working in the Off Broadway production of Dangerous
Corner with her and Mary McCann and his wife. "We're all three really good
friends, and while we were doing Dangerous Corner, we'd all hang out
backstage and laugh and gossip and give each other shit. He liked to watch us,
and one day he said, `I love seeing you three together. Let's do something else
so we can all hang out again.'
"So he started writing it, setting it against a really interesting backdrop.
It's the turn of the century, the gilded age, which was a really fun time. Who
doesn't love seeing an Oscar Wilde play? They're so witty, so fast, and so
amusing. And Mamet can write this shit. My mom was helping me one day with some
references that were a bit arcane. And she said, `How does he know how to write
this stuff? Oh, yes, of course. He's a genius. I guess that's how.' "
David Mamet's Boston Marriage opens this Friday, June 4, and runs
through June 27 at the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge. For tickets and
information, call (617) 547-8300.