PERFORMANCE REVIEW- Fun, fun, fun: Mamet brings on the laughs

If a foul-mouthed Chicago tough can remake himself as a rapier wit, there's no reason why a wisecracking crayon can't hit the stage as a love-struck hysteric.

Let me explain.

Playwright David Mamet, who made his name with fierce, misanthropically dark plays like Glengarry Glen Ross (1983 Pulitzer Prize) and Oleanna (1992 nationwide controversy), has been on a mission to show his range in recent years. In 1999 he wrote and directed a G-rated film version of the Terence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy, about– brace yourself– a British lad who sticks to his principles. Mamet's most recent play is another period piece, Boston Marriage, currently in a sharp and roaringly funny production at Live Arts.

Whatever the reason for Mamet's move from machine-gun obscenities to filigree proprieties, it has produced entertaining results. Boston Marriage follows the squabbles of a clandestinely lesbian couple and their hapless Scottish maid in turn-of-the-century America. The play is essentially two hours of eloquent insults. This could easily become tedious, in the Live Arts production or any other. But here's where the crayon comes in.

Live Arts' general manager Ronda Hewitt, who brought down the house as a wisecracking, cigar-chomping crayon in Coffeehouse 13, plays Anna, one half of the dysfunctional couple. Hewitt's physical precision and antic comic energy could easily carry the show. All the better that she doesn't have to. Equally sharp are Kara McLane Burke as Anna's lover, Claire, and Kara Duncan as the aproned, tight-laced Catherine, who's full of wise advice from "me old grandmum" that she can never quite manage to get out.

There's something resembling a plot to this play, but it's really no more than a frame for Mamet to hang flowery one-liners on. Anna takes a male lover to pay the bills, Claire pursues a young female mark who winds up being the daughter of Anna's man, hilarity ensues. The old Mamet does emerge at times, when the ladies drop their thesaurus-driven eloquence to call each other "cow" and far worse. The cast, under the enlightened direction of Amanda McRaven, makes the best of this, varying the rhythm and tone of their conflict to match the register of the language.

Add to the fun the brilliant live musical accompaniment of a cellist hidden in the rafters. From classical composure to chittering silent-movie melodrama, the musical soundtrack is as flexible and energetic as Mamet's language and the performances themselves.

Among the best the new Live Arts– or any theater in town– has to offer.

Final performances of Boston Marriage are February 5 at 7:30pm and February 7 at 8pm. Live Arts, 123 E. Water St. $10-15. 977-4177.