NEW YORK — Actress Kate Burton has an addiction — she can’t stop wearing corsets. She received two Tony nominations this year for her roles in “Hedda Gabler” and “The Elephant Man” — wearing corsets in both — and on Wednesday, she will don another for the New York debut of the David Mamet play “Boston Marriage,” a Victorian drawing-room comedy co-starring Martha Plimpton. In previews since Nov. 5 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the play, directed by Karen Kohlhaas, explores a lesbian relationship during the era and runs through Dec. 8.
“My friend Todd Haimes from the Roundabout Theatre saw it last night and said, ‘Only you could find a play with a corset that’s written by David Mamet,’” booms Burton, who plays Anna, the elder character. Although the prolific Mamet is best known for his gritty male characters (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Untouchables”), his talent for witty dialogue is at its peak in this play, first staged in 1999. It is stocked with decidedly un-Victorian one-liners such as, “One must keep a civil tongue in one’s mouth. It need not be one’s own.”
“What can I say?” asks Burton dryly. “It’s a big fat comedy. Sometimes they’re more challenging than dramatic plays because it’s all about timing.”
And timing, when you’re dealing with Mamet’s language, can be difficult to master. According to Burton — whose sharp-tongued character plots to win back the affection of young Claire (Plimpton), whose eye has strayed — Mamet’s material makes for an extremely “tricky” show.
“It’s completely complex, a sort of mental gymnastics for both the audience and for us,” she says, citing the density of his language. She likens the play to a “Caucasian, female highfalutin version of ‘Top Dog/Under Dog.’
“It really is about the power play, who’s on top, who feels they’re on top, who’s actually on top, and how you negotiate with someone you love. That’s Mamet at his core. It’s all about what can I get from you and over on you.”
During rehearsals, Mamet dropped in for three days and helped Burton find just the right pitch. “He uses the language so you’re speaking like Gwendolyn in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ one moment and then you’re talking like Ethel Merman the next,” says Burton, who noted that Mamet offered her a piece of advice on her delivery: “‘Tell it to the marines.’”
“I said, ‘So, Mae West?’” adds Burton. “He said, ‘That’s good.’”
Burton’s next scheduled project is “A Little Night Music” at the City Opera. But she won’t stray too far from more familiar territory.
“Back in a corset,” she says. “Again.”