There is nothing at all romantic about David Mamet’s latest play, “Romance,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum. In fact, it’s a courtroom comedy mixed with a sex farce and involving a risible plot hatched by a chiropractor to bring peace to the Middle East. Featuring the ever-welcome fractured phrasings of the Mamet vernacular and a keenly kooky perf by Larry Bryggman, “Romance” is, first and foremost, funny as hell.
The play received very mixed reviews in its New York run at the Atlantic Theater Company, which reproduces its staging here with about half of the original cast, and was greeted similarly in a different production last month in London.
The divergent responses really aren’t that surprising. “Romance” delivers some empty comic calories, relying on plenty of vitriolic comments on religion, ever-reliable gay stereotypes and a heavily medicated judge. Mamet almost seems to be treating theater here as a form of team standup comedy, ditching the influence of Harold Pinter for the likes of George Carlin and Jackie Mason.
Yes, it’s very funny, and nobody makes better use of the “f” word than Mamet, but it’s also easy to expect more from one of the nation’s most prominent playwrights than suggestions that Episcopalians are just Catholics who drive Volvos.
The characters who populate “Romance” are relentlessly one-dimensional figures granted great dialogue but mostly deprived of names. There’s the Defendant (Steven Goldstein) — what he’s accused of we’re never quite sure, but it involves a trip to Hawaii and a rabbit — who insists on taking the stand against the better judgment of the Defense Attorney (Ed Begley Jr.). It doesn’t go well, both because the highly allergic Judge (Larry Bryggman) seems primarily preoccupied with the Mideast peace conference happening elsewhere in the city, and because the Prosecutor (Jim Frangione) pulls out the Defendant’s rather incriminating diary.
Before long, in semi-private conference watched over by the nonchalant Bailiff (Steven Hawley), Jewish defendant and his Christian counsel are screaming vulgar insults at each other. It’s to Mamet’s credit that all this comes off as intensely caustic but strangely innocent. It gets so politically incorrect so fast that it’s impossible to worry about any offensiveness; besides, the two figures are far less sensitive about their religions than they are about their professions. The Defendant is a chiropractor — and whatever you do, don’t call him a chiropodist!
The Prosecutor, meanwhile, has some troubles on the homefront, with his gay lover Bernard (Noah Bean) getting awfully steamed about a burned pot roast. All this leads to a climactic sequence back in court, capped by Bryggman’s antics once the Judge has popped enough pills to begin undressing.
Bryggman deservedly won an Obie for his wacky shenanigans as the drugged-out jurist. And while Noah Bean wasn’t in the original cast, he certainly sets a heckuva high standard for the cardboard-thin Bernard. In fact, the entire cast possesses crack timing, and under Neil Pepe’s direction the play moves with a nice combination of calmness and quickness.
If there is a genuine achievement here on Mamet’s part, it’s creating a farce with very little physical activity. His dialogue is so sharp, the non sequiturs so zany and strangely logical, that the play feels way more active than it really is. The verbal gymnastics include, for example, a character’s finishing the Judge’s sentence with the high-minded word “precedent,” when in fact he was searching for “vibrator.”
So yes, the play is very, very funny. But the question lingers: Does Mamet really have anything to say here?
Perhaps it’s a stretch, but “Romance” comes off as an exercise in depthlessness, which may have been the formal challenge he set for himself. It’s as if Mamet determined to play with shallowness, to work only with characters who are collections of clichéd attributes — Jewish or Christian, gay or straight — without letting them become more; and to ponder plotlines that treat serious matters with the utmost superficiality.
After all, the second act of the play is driven in large part by the suggestion that world peace can be accomplished with a slight neck adjustment. And even this throughline involving something of substance gets sidetracked by the Judge’s madness for his medication and Bernard’s quiche.
Superficial comic playwriting? Or a metaphor for how our society deals, or doesn’t deal, with today’s complex problems?