Photo by Craig SchwartzEarly on in David Mamets play Romance (Mark Taper Forum), the aggrieved defendant in a criminal trial laments, I hired a goy lawyer. Its like going to a straight hairdresser! If this reckless slur against hairdressers seems offensive, its well to recall that only a moment before, the gentile lawyer who was the target of this outburst had called his client a kike cocksucker. To his face. Then apologized. Then took back the apology. The mens heated exchange is the highlight of a scene built on escalating insults a lawyer-client conference that will end with the client, a chiropractor, having an improbable epiphany about how to bring peace to the Middle East.Before long, however, some in the audience may experience an epiphany of their own namely, that the play will never get better than this, or even remain at this level. Instead, it wheels into a meandering, verbal food fight between men in court who are little more than well-dressed buffoons. Act 2 opens in the apartment of the Prosecutor, a homosexual, who is in the middle of a lovers tiff with his ultra-nelly boyfriend. We know theirs is a gay home because of its track lighting and vase of calla lilies; and, if we also sense that the two men are, well, a little too gay, with their aprons and satin bathrobes, we wouldnt be completely wrong. Their scene together is an intentional display of stereotyping.Romance, which premiered earlier this year off-Broadway, can be seen as part of that newish genre of comedies that make a rather noisy point of being un-P.C. about gender, race and politics. Liberal audiences are supposed to be shocked by these plays and by their authors audacity to say whats supposedly on everyones mind or, at least, what might be on the mind of the guy sitting next to us.But un-P.C. plays are gimmick plays, and its hard to fathom what Mamet, whom we dont normally associate with gimmickry, might be up to. His drama Oleanna mocked the high Mandarin of politically correct speech; it also eviscerated identity politics, but did so with a scalpel rather than the Louisville Slugger that seems to be Romances instrument of choice. We leave the theater after this brief entertainment (it runs 75 minutes, plus intermission), figuring that Mamet must feel a late-career need to wear a farceurs hat.Romances plot exists simply to unravel as soon as its characters are introduced. The nameless Defendant (Steven Goldstein) is on trial for some undefined charge, which his Defense Attorney (Ed Begley Jr.) is trying to beat. Its hard for the lawyer or the Prosecutor (Jim Frangione), however, to get a word into the record because the malarial musings of the Judge (Larry Bryggman), whose disruptive asides and increasingly erratic behavior are fueled by the fistfuls of allergy pills he consumes, render the cases details irrelevant. Indeed, the Defendants novel plan for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together through spinal alignments, at the very moment their representatives are negotiating a peace agreement nearby, becomes a hopeless dream to be delayed and derailed by the slapstick that engulfs the courtroom. It doesnt take long to recognize that Mamets guiding aesthetic here is the Marx Brothers, for Romances Judge seems a mix of Rufus T. Firefly and, perhaps, Julius Hoffman of Chicago 7 conspiracy trial notoriety. The only thing thats noticeably contemporary about this romp is its profanity, but here Mamets Fuck you!/No, fuck you! conversational dialectic quickly burrs into a harmless white noise. Even when the Bailiff (Steven Hawley) blurts out, I had sex with a goose!, his admission proves as inconsequential as the rest of the plays dialogue, allowing Mamet to join Neil Simon, Charles Busch and other heroes of Grand Avenue complacency. Director Neil Pepe, who staged the premiere production of Romance at New Yorks Atlantic Theater Company (some of whose original cast members appear at the Taper), shows a confident understanding of both the plays verbal pyrotechnics and its physical acrobatics, incorporating some low-key sight gags into the otherwise loud proceedings. Robert Brills stage, a clever monument to both courtroom gravitas and townhouse opulence, is best described as a series of rotating wooden blocks that efficiently transport us from one locale to two others. Brill uses the sets columned vertical lines, capped by a painting of George Washington, as a foil for the screwball antics unfolding below. The ensemble is equally in tune with the slapstick, especially Bryggman, who was so compelling in the original New York production of Proof, and who here displays a natural sense of clowning as his Judge careens through the trial. Its also admittedly something of a guarded treat to watch Ed Begley Jr. as such a foulmouthed character, even if his presence does get swept away by the plays circus hijinks.One comment often heard in the theater during intermissions at un-P.C. plays (and it was heard at the Taper when I attended) is, Everyone gets it here! That is to say, all members of whatever social equation is being lampooned onstage are evenly pilloried. With Romance, however, questions remain over who is getting it and just what exactly they are getting.The lawyer and his client, certainly, represent a kind of ethnic paradigm, but one that, silhouetted against the larger picture of contemporary prejudices, seems somewhat quaint and almost Rockwellian. The Jewish Question, after all, isnt exactly a red-button issue in the American conversation, even among stuffy WASPs like the Defense Attorney. And besides, the chiropractor, despite his defensive insults hurled against brain-dead white socks, country club, plaid pants, Campbells soup fuckin shaygetz goy[s], frankly isnt bigoted on the level of his attorney. There is one moment when he seems about to offer an opinion on Palestinians, but that moment passes.Likewise, the Prosecutors boyfriend, Bernard (Noah Bean), attired in the stripy kind of sports jacket you might expect to find on Oscar Wilde, is so marrowless, so swishy, that no one can really be offended. But hes not funny, either hes not anything except, maybe, a kind of early-1960s caricature of The Fag. After all, if a recent L.A. Times automobile review can refer to the Miata as a hairdressers car, we can assume this euphemistic stereotype has become a harmless relic. Mamets whole project reads like a valentine to the past.Its only fair to ask, then, why the playwright bothered. Mamet, who has become so much a part of the culture and entertainment industry, had, unlike many other artists, the chance to say something to the theater public or, at least, to poke that public in the eye, but settled on resurrecting some old vaudeville gags.And yet, he was so close to making Romance a subversive grenade of a comedy. If he had let the chiropractor go off on Arabs or had the Bailiff say 5-year-old instead of goose, the guffaws that filled the Taper would have stopped cold.Presumably he didnt because he doesnt need to Mamets audience certainly doesnt want him to. It pretended to receive a bracing slap of Mamet invective but really came away tickled by a middle-aged, middle-class comedy. Romance is a play that goes for belly laughs but doesnt have the stomach to make us think about anything. Which makes attending a Mamet farce like going to see the performance of a straight drag queen.ROMANCE | By DAVID MAMET | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through November 13 | (213) 628-2772
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.