With Dame Edna currently holding court at the National Theatre, only a very brave soul would dare to suggest that anyone else might be the funniest diva on a Washington stage. I must be feeling brave. Kate Eastwood Norris is the funniest diva on a Washington stage.
She’s at Source Theater, tossing off epigrams in a campy faux-Victorian comedy of manners called Boston Marriage (written by David Mamet, of all people), and she’s a riot from the moment she enters, acknowledging a star-worshipping ovation that it has not yet occurred to the audience to bestow upon her. Exquisitely genteel in her gratitude, she pretty much obliges the crowd to start applauding, by smiling sweetly, tilting her head coquettishly, dipping in the very slightest of curtsies, each step toward the audience another gracious bow to what she evidently assumes is our heartfelt, if belated, adoration. Then, upon reaching the footlights and having nowhere to go but into character, she becomes Anna, a scheming, sheltered maiden-lady of a certain age, and gets to the business of establishing ownership of the stage.
This is not as easy as it might be, considering that the set has been competing furiously for the crowd’s attention since the ornately ornamented stage curtain first parted. Designer Greg Stevens has drowned every inch of Anna’s drawing room in a flood of clashing chintz—floral patterns in pinks, yellows, lavenders, and greens spilling down walls, splashing across windows, gushing from doorways, and submerging furniture in a cascade of color that’s staggering enough that it would doubtless alarm even Laura Ashley. Feather bouquets, lace doilies, and sketches of elaborately bewigged and chapeau’d ladies add so many layers of ornament that if Norris were any less animated, she might very well disappear. But her Anna is not the sort to fade into woodwork, however brightly appointed it might be. Plunging her fist into the derrière of a lacquered ebony elephant, she pulls out an emerald necklace and dons it with a flourish, determined to dazzle her dearest companion, whom she’s just spied through a window.
That would be Claire (Jenifer Deal, also curtsying furiously as she enters, then slipping offstage so she can enter again in character), who is a bit less flamboyant than Anna but flushed with excitement and similarly given to arch repartee and arched eyebrows. Imagine Wilde’s Gwendolyn and Cecily as lovers rather than acquaintances—this play takes its title from a 19th-century euphemism for long-term lesbian relationships—and you’ve about got the picture.
But while Anna’s new necklace—a gift from a male “protector” who’s smitten enough to underwrite her expenses but married enough that he won’t be underfoot—portends ease for their domestic partnership, Claire’s radiant glow is evidence of a problem. You see, she’s fallen for a younger woman and is hoping to bring her over this very afternoon for a tryst. Frosty negotiations ensue, interrupted frequently by a maid (Elizabeth Simmons) so mousy that her distracted employer can’t even keep her country of origin straight (hence the eccentric lectures on how crop rotation could have averted the Irish potato famine, though the girl’s a Scot). Feathers are ruffled (and at one point, watered), curtains slammed (don’t tell me it can’t happen—I saw it), and hatpins brandished. It’s all as uproarious as it is slight.
Which is not to say there aren’t darker undercurrents coursing through the material. The dialogue mixes fin-de-siècle chatter about “reticules” and “assignations” with more familiar Mamet-speak (“What a vast and pointless shithole it all is”), and the story is comically bipolar in a similar way, anchoring the evening’s laughs in plot twists rife with class privilege, outlaw passion, and repressed acceptance of the suffrage of men.
Anna and Claire are, as you may be guessing, nowhere nearly as violent as the rampaging males who populate Mamet’s early works, lacerating each other in junk shops and real-estate offices. But the difference has more to do with tone than with content. If you think time has mellowed the author who has lately been helping give stage shape to Ricky Jay’s card-playing shenanigans and adapting Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy for Hollywood, Boston Marriage will set you straight. If the voices are higher-pitched and the vocabulary higher-toned than the playwright’s fans will expect, he’s still delivering vitriol in every phrase.
Jeffrey Johnson’s staging frames the play with music-hall vocalizing and—as that irrelevantly amusing device suggests—more often encourages you to howl at surface details and delivery than at the ironies on which the play is built. Contributing mightily to his success with that strategy is Norris’ inability to inflect a line without making it sound priceless. I scribbled down snatches of dialogue that look decidedly pallid on the page but which she seemed to have no trouble spinning into comic gold. Deal and Simmons also have their moments, and when the three performers triple-teamed a sequence on opening night, mining every possible lewdness from a vein of dialogue that’s ostensibly about accessorizing and kitchen appliances and concludes with the line “while I was admiring your muff, your parts came,” they ended up with the comic equivalent of a musical showstopper. Toward evening’s end, as Mamet allows the plot to float off into the ether, you may wish the director had paid a bit more attention to finding emotional ballast beneath the laughs, but it would be hard to argue that he hasn’t whipped up an appealing comic froth.
Actors’ Theatre of Washington’s mounting looks grand, with Lee Ann Chermack’s richly detailed gowns meriting chortles (Claire enters at one point in a hat that looks like a roast beef with feathers) and Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting shifting effortlessly from the music hall bits in front of the curtain to the Victorian melodrama behind it. As this may well be the last show to play Source Theatre, it is sad but gratifying to report that the hall itself has never looked better, outfitted with a false proscenium and festooned both onstage and off with art by Kreg Kelley. There’s a bright yellow “Call to Arms” flier stuffed into the program asking that patrons oppose the sale of the building, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine a better argument for maintaining it as a theater space than a production as sharp as this Boston Marriage.
Speaking of marriages, wouldn’t you think the teaming-up of Synetic Theater and Theater J for The Dybbuk, S. Anski’s turn-of-the-last-century tale of mysticism, supernatural possession, and a splashy Jewish wedding, would be a union made in heaven?
Well, not so much, which is odd, because Synetic’s mime-based storytelling seems tailor-made for folkloric material, and Theater J’s specialty—working closely with authors and actors to hone new scripts—really ought to offer a fix for Synetic’s sometimes shaky relationship with words. When announced, this appeared a marriage of convenience that had a real shot at bliss.
But in The Dybbuk—which tells of a demonic possession in which a boy’s spirit rises from the grave to claim the body of his beloved just as she’s about to marry someone else—the coupling of disparate theatrical approaches proves a shotgun affair. Where Synetic’s own productions often try for wordlessness or use voice-overs to brush in information, this joint effort uses speech liberally when characters have both feet in the real world, and emphasizes movement whenever spirituality is invoked. That sounds logical in theory, but in practice it turns the early going schizophrenic, alternating flat-footed discussions (of food, marriage contracts, studying Torah), with ethereal visions (of meditating while bathing, or ecstatically engaging in cabala mysticism).
As the evening progresses, more of the narrative involves the spirit world, so there’s less necessity for speeches, which would be grand if what remained of S. Anski’s script in the adaptation devised by Hannah Hessel and director Paata Tsikurishivili didn’t tend toward the portentous. “There may not be peace again—not for us, not for anyone,” says a rabbi who is about to perform an exorcism on a leading lady who’s begun snarling like a super-annuated Linda Blair. Everyone’s deadly serious about all this, but it sounds about as B-movie-ish as it looks, despite a characteristically lush score assembled by Irakli Kavsadze and Tsikurishvili.
As the boy and girl, Andrew Zox and Irina Tsikurishvili (who is both the director’s wife and the production’s choreographer) are persuasively anguished, and Dan Istrate has some nice moments as a friend who tries to steer the boy away from the dark places he’s headed. Anastasia Ryurikov Simes’ design scheme is attractively spooky, with its cloth lake, beribboned tree, and fabric shackles, all lit with an eye for the macabre by Colin K. Bills. Would that the storytelling, though, were as efficient as the stage trappings. At 82 minutes, the intermissionless evening may be brief, but the dancing at the leading lady’s abortive wedding feels endless. And while the casting out of demons is effectively realized—centrifugal force seems crucial—it’s not for a moment eerie, threatening, or otherworldly, just theatrical and attenuated. CP