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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
It's a long way from the thugs in Chicago's mean streets to the feline beauties in a 19th century drawing room but, to David Mamet, it's all about relationships. Cementing his reputation for the unpredictable, Mamet uses some of the weapons of farce in this three-character piece, now playing at the newly refurbished Geffen Playhouse.
Anna (Mary Steenburgen), an elegant beauty of a certain age, has acquired a male protector who has given her the expensive necklace she's wearing, and a "consultation fee" which will support her and (unbeknownst to him) her long-time lover Clare (Rebecca Pidgeon). Clare has fallen in love with a teen-age girl and wants Anna to be her "beard", providing a respectable love nest. Anna is astonished and hurt but never loses her instinct to negotiate and the two women are too thick in trade-offs to pay attention to their maid Catherine (Alicia Silverstone). Their indifference and cruelty are typical of their class. Catherine's dumb-blonde stoic ability to hold her ground is a classic example of The Marriage of Figaro servant-master comedy. There's also an element of the Marx Brothers in Mamet's Boston. He's obviously had a slyly wonderful time doing it, playing at the far end of the spectrum from his Romance, recently performed at The Mark Taper Forum.
Mamet's sharp sexy epigrams and signature humor are much in evidence. The chief difference is the length of the speeches in 19th-century style. The two-generational love story between an older caretaking woman of elegance and wisdom who is forgetful and wishes she read more and the fiery younger one who thinks learning is pushy and feels desperately on the brink of her last romance is a familiar story told in a puckish farcical style that makes the characters face the pain beneath the laughter.
As director, Mamet adheres to his own observations penned in his article "On Directing for the Stage." He wants the audience to hear his words and his actors to face out and deliver. It's such a relief. There are no posed stage pictures, no imitation film reaction shots where you get to see the face of the actor being addressed.
Takeshi Kata's minimalist set with its beige wallpaper appears to be simply background for the women. Not so Debra McGuire's wonderful costumes which tell stories in themselves. Clare is clothed as a flamboyant Bohemian. The necktie in her Act I suit implies a suffragette but the huge hat and multi-patterned ensemble are far from business-like. Anna goes from the flowing at-home ensemble of a businessman's mistress to the tailored suit of a nun on the run. Silverstone's maid's dress is a joke, pinned up in back to reveal her pantalets, visualizing what she projects and what happens to her. Lap-Chi Chu's subtle lighting brings out the best in the actresses.
By the end of the play, without benefit of backstory, we know a lot about these women. They're selfish, pragmatic and waft varying shades of charm. Steenburgen is an authoritative mesmerizing sylph. Pidgeon, who plays Clare as initially tight with tension at what she feels and what she's going to do, warms into the duel she must play with Anna and later the survival techniques the two develop. Silverstone makes a delicious Catherine. Instead of tears, she's developed a monotone howl that starts at the top and descends, exactly like an air raid siren in a World War II movie. You hold your breath waiting for the explosion but it never comes, which doesn't keep you from waiting for it next time. "The world you see is not cruel and it shall be my mission to protect you from it," Clare says to Anna at the play's end. That sums up their characters in a nutshell.
Editor's Note: Despite receiving mixed reviews when it initially appeared, this play has had numerous productions, of which this, directed by Mamet himself is the latest. For more about Mamet and links to other reviews see our David Mamet Backgrounder.
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