Britain’s love affair with David Mamet is sure to be sorely tested by “Romance,” even in a Lindsay Posner production that improves upon its Off Broadway debut earlier this year. As was widely remarked at that time, the courtroom farce finds the American master of machismo veering off in unexpected directions, most of which land like a dead weight on the stage. A furious, finely tuned perf by visiting thesp John Mahoney won’t be enough to propel the Almeida’s European preem of the play toward a commercial transfer.
“Romance” isn’t quite as noxious as Mamet’s Sapphic head-scratcher “Boston Marriage.” But as with that play, this latest one suggests a dramatist trying to shrug off past associations yet unsure what to put in their place. And if “The Goat” could bag Edward Albee a late-career Tony, why shouldn’t Mamet counter with a comedy featuring a defendant-cum-chiropractor (Nigel Lindsay) who has had sex with a goose?
Such activity is the least of the scattershot shock tactics thrown off by a short script that seems nonetheless in severe need of an edit. While there’s something briefly liberating about finding so militantly hetero a writer devising the apron-wearing gay man, Bernard or “Bunny” (Paul Ready), the anarchic impulses of “Romance” quickly run cold.
British spectators may have more patience with the play’s vague, pro forma nod in the direction of politics: London more than New York tends to worship at the feet of any script with even a whiff of social relevance. That Mamet’s shenanigans are unfolding as an Arab-Israeli peace conference takes place allows for the crudest imaginable counterpoint and at least one pregnantly leaden line: “How can you have peace in the Middle East when you can’t have peace in your home?” cries Bernard, who also responds to the moniker Buns.
“Romance” is best taken not as some sort of parable but as a study in escalating self-obsession, in which every character’s dirty linen is left waving madly in the air. (Nor is history exempt: Teddy Roosevelt, we’re told, was mulatto.)
The parts may be more fun to play than they are to watch, though “Romance” is more skillfully served than was the recent Posner-helmed “A Life in the Theater,” with Patrick Stewart and Joshua Jackson. (Of this director’s five London forays into Mamet, his “Oleanna” revival was the most rewarding.)
In Colin Stinton’s defence attorney, the U.K. “Romance” boasts an inimitable Mamet veteran with a brilliant gift for deadpan. Stinton’s sure command shows up the shakiness of some of his colleagues’ accents, including Ready, who lets slip the louder and more belligerent Bunny gets. (Then again, the lost contact lens routine could scarcely be more tired.)
Mahoney tears into the star part of the pill-popping, vibrator-happy judge like Groucho Marx on Quaaludes (he speaks purringly of his gavel as “my little hammer”), eliciting laughs even when weeping over “this shithole we call life.”
Contempo classics like “Glengarry Glen Ross” face the same prospect dead on with timeless dramatic fire. “Romance,” by contrast, breaks all the rules, which is OK, while missing the salient point, which isn’t. It’s loud and boisterous but barely, rarely, funny.