Photo by Craig SchwartzEarly on in David Mamet’s play Romance (Mark Taper Forum), the aggrieved
defendant in a criminal trial laments, “I hired a goy lawyer. It’s like going
to a straight hairdresser!” If this reckless slur against hairdressers seems offensive,
it’s 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 men’s 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 wouldn’t 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 what’s supposedly on everyone’s 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 it’s hard to fathom what Mamet, whom we don’t 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 Romance’s 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 farceur’s hat.Romance’s 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. It’s 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 case’s details irrelevant. Indeed, the Defendant’s 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 doesn’t take long to recognize that Mamet’s guiding aesthetic here is the Marx Brothers, for Romance’s Judge seems a mix of Rufus T. Firefly and, perhaps, Julius Hoffman of Chicago 7 conspiracy trial notoriety. The only thing that’s noticeably contemporary about this romp is its profanity, but here Mamet’s “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 play’s 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 York’s Atlantic Theater Company (some of whose original cast members appear
at the Taper), shows a confident understanding of both the play’s verbal pyrotechnics
and its physical acrobatics, incorporating some low-key sight gags into the otherwise
loud proceedings. Robert Brill’s 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 set’s
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. It’s 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 play’s 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, isn’t 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, Campbell’s soup fuckin’ shaygetz goy[s],” frankly isn’t 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 Prosecutor’s 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 he’s not funny, either — he’s 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 hairdresser’s car,” we can assume this euphemistic stereotype has become a harmless relic. Mamet’s whole project reads like a valentine to the past.It’s 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 didn’t because he doesn’t need to — Mamet’s audience certainly doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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

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