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Gibson Girls Gone Wild

Rebecca Pidgeon swoops into Annas drawing room in Boston Marriage.

Rebecca Pidgeon swoops into Annas drawing room in Boston Marriage.

David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, first staged in 1999, is complemented by his 2005 play, Romance. The latter is an all-male courtroom farce awash in testosterone and profanity, while the earlier work is a kind of estrogen bomb about three Gilded Age women who speak in theatrical sentences often filigreed with aphorisms. Boston Marriage, directed by Mamet and now appearing at the Geffen Playhouse, also bears a superficial resemblance to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, concurrently running at the Ahmanson Playhouse. At least we think so when we first encounter Anna (Mary Steenburgen), resplendent in black-and-white loungewear that Wilde’s illustrator friend Aubrey Beardsley might have designed, and especially when her friend Claire (Rebecca Pidgeon) swoops into Anna’s drawing room so thoroughly attired in green, she looks like a walking absinthe bottle. Anna’s silky pants, along with Claire’s emerald-green necktie and vaguely masculine shirt, suggests something else: They are lesbians.

Even before a single L-word of dialogue, this hunch is confirmed by the play’s title, a Victorianism for girl-on-girl love. Anna and her younger friend are now merely friends, though, living in an unnamed city after the turn of the 20th century. Anna is a woman kept by a wealthy man, while the flame-haired Claire is carrying on a romance with a young girl who she hopes Anna will allow over so the two can have a tryst. (Anna insists on observing through a peephole.) As Anna and Claire gnaw on grapes and swill sherry, their chatter ricochets on matters of sexual relations and culture.

“Why would he require a mistress if he had no wife?” Anna says of her “protector.” For her part, Claire regards the polite discussion of geopolitics as necessary for the passing of time for people “when they are thrust together. During dinner, or .?.?. marriage.”

Their windy sophistry is delivered in speech that may as well be Old Church Slavonic to Anna’s maid, Catherine (Alicia Silverstone), a dense prat who nevertheless has more common sense than the two educated dykes.

The comedy is not about class, lesbianism or even women, however. It’s not about anything. Marriage-equality activists looking for a fund-raiser event will definitely find Boston Marriage wanting, while theatergoers who have maintained that Mamet cannot write dialogue for women will feel comfortably reconfirmed in their views after watching the play.

Boston Marriage repeats three or four gags over 85 minutes. Anna and Claire dig at each other with erudite insults, then kiss and make up. Simpering Catherine enters to make an announcement, and Anna, who knows she’s appeared even though she has her back turned to the maid, cuts her off with a barrage of anti-Irish invective (even though Catherine’s Scottish), usually calling her “Mary” or “Bridy.” Catherine then replies with a nearly inaudible wail or earthy comment. It’s the old “Jane, you ignorant slut” school of banter from an early Saturday Night Live sketch that comprises most of the show.

A moment of discovery concludes Act 1 after 30 minutes; beyond that, there is no plot to speak of, no twist, no reversal of fortune or turning of mistress-maid tables.

It’s obvious why the Geffen would produce this play that, had it been written by a new and unknown playwright, would at best have landed in a small theater south of Santa Monica Boulevard. The real mystery is why its famous author would have bothered to present what is essentially a writing exercise. (To show he can imitate Wilde, or, at least, Tom Stoppard imitating Wilde?) All of Anna and Claire’s talk about the better classes and lower orders rings hollow, even in the Geffen’s reupholstered maw, because, like the equally empty Romance, there is no context, only surface.

Boston Marriage, it must be said, is more watchable than the scatological vaudeville of Romance, and its cast and production values are superb. Steenburgen is irresistible to watch as a willowy, withering WASP — or should that be asp? — and is exquisitely played off against by Pidgeon’s airy character. For her part, Silverstone, in a role that could come off as dangerously unsympathetic, or worse, cloying, holds up her end of the conversations with deadpan deliveries of such loaded lines as, “While I was admiring your muff your parts came.”

The real stars, though, are costume designer Debra McGuire’s outfits and wigs — clothes that lasciviously cinch and accentuate the women’s bodies, and the Gibson Girl wigs that float above their owners’ heads like mischievous thoughts. If only those thoughts had become ideas.?

BOSTON MARRIAGE | By DAVID MAMET | At Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Thru March 12 | (310) 208-5454 or (213) 365-3500

Beware of couples who ask you ?and your spouse over for dinner — especially if you suspect you may turn out to be the main course. Amer­icans have never been able to respond to social invitations from work colleagues with quite the same innocence they displayed before Edward Albee’s George and Martha hosted an evening whose pastimes included Get the Guests and Hump the Hostess. The British have only kept the party threat advisory at orange with Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and Alan Ayckbourne’s Absurd Person Singular — comic nightmares about what happens when people with few ambitions have too many drinks.

Playwright David Gieselmann is German but feels no need to bring order to the fondue table. His 70-minute play, Mr. Kolpert, running at the Odyssey Theater, is an expressionist meltdown that begins with civilized banter and ends with mute, primal apocalypse. Ralf and Sarah (Kenneth Alan Williams and Amy Farrington) are an unmarried couple living together; bored by life, they’ve embarked on a search for catharsis to jump-start their emotions. Taking a cue from the Leopold and Loeb–like characters of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, they murder an office colleague of Sarah’s and hide him in a steamer trunk. But perhaps they haven’t. We aren’t really certain — not even guests Edith and Bastian (Jen Dede and Thomas Vincent Kelly), who arrive for drinks and abuse, know for sure, although their hosts continually taunt them with the murder claim — and the trunk that ostentatiously sits in the middle of their apartment.

For a while it doesn’t seem to matter, since Edith and Bastian have their own problems. He’s a teetotaling architect so prickly that he almost beats up Ralf when the host offers him liquor. Nor is Bastian much impressed with Ralf’s erudite chatter about chaos theory or with Sarah’s claim that mousy Edith had an affair with Mr. Kolpert — the man supposedly in the trunk. Adding insulin to injury, the diabetic Bastian must inject himself in front of everyone.

Mr. Kolpert is familiar stuff to students of black comedy, and to Joe Orton admirers in particular. Language doesn’t merely fail, it plays tricks on its speakers; an unhelpful outsider appears in the figure of a hapless pizza deliveryman (Brad C. Light) and characters lose control of the situation when confronted with death — not as the ruffian on the stairs, but as a heavy, bloody corpse.

“All research is research into order,” Ralf explains to the frowning Bastian. “Chaos researchers ask, ‘What if there is no order?’?”

The cardinal sin, in other words, is not murder but the hubris of trying to make order out of chaos — or is it trying to create chaos where order exists? Director Scott Cummins has fun with David Tushingham’s translation, but knows when to pull back and allow the evening’s final, bloody tableau to speak for itself. The cast goes all out (including several members who will appear fully nude); Farrington in particular excels at the physical comedy, although I don’t know why Williams speaks with a British accent.

If there’s a problem, as far as Gieselmann is concerned, it’s that he’s a formalist playwright attempting to apply an intellectual veneer over what is essentially a food fight. Still, he never pushes the theory too hard, and so we should shun that favorite theater-party game, Punch the Playwright.

MR. KOLPERT | By DAVID GIESELMANN | At Odyssey Theater Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Thru March 19 | (310) 477-2055