The rat-a-tat dialogue and all-male volleyball match of hurled profanities might be familiar, but nearly everything else in “Romance” is atypical of David Mamet. In his first premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, which he co-founded with William H. Macy 20 years ago, Mamet concocts a manic and mannered contempo courtroom farce that takes on the Middle East conflict along with justice and peace in an irreconcilably divided world. A spry cast and Neil Pepe’s muscular direction keep things moving, but this profoundly odd reflection on weighty issues within a wisp of a play smacks of a writer contriving to affect a style not his own.
One of three American playwrights — along with Craig Lucas and John Patrick Shanley — this season in New York with both new plays and revivals, Mamet continues, after the verbose Victoriana of “Boston Marriage,” to confound expectations by stretching outside his natural register. But like that play, “Romance” is all pyrotechnic wordplay with little substance — at least none that can be easily distilled.
Despite the usual flights of edgy, literate wit and precision-honed, non-naturalistic dialogue, “Romance’s” ungrounded absurdism and smart-alecky tone ultimately make it feel like something hauled out of a drawer and dusted off, the less mature work of a writer experimenting somewhat recklessly in an unfamiliar form.
Unfolding on designer Robert Brill’s pristine set of courtroom and chambers, the play spins drunkenly around the theme of world peace, the possibility of which is manifested in a photograph of the Ariel Sharon-Mahmoud Abbas handshake on page one of the New York Times. Late for the session due to a Peace Conference parade, the judge (Larry Bryggman) staggers in brandishing that newspaper. Flustered by hay fever and excess medication, he’s unable to focus on the case at hand as he continually digresses to philosophize on peace.
Details of the charges are not immediately apparent, despite the frustrated efforts of the prosecutor (Bob Balaban) to get down to business. But it seems the stubbornly evasive defendant (Steven Goldstein) is a chiropractor charged with a misdemeanor during a Hawaii trip that has some connection to a bunny, as in rabbit.
The wistful judge ponders his role of dispensing justice and other big issues: “We get caught up in the form, the law, religion, skin color. And then, miraculously, now and then, by the grace of God, we are free.”
Meanwhile, relations between the defendant and his attorney (Christopher Evan Welch) deteriorate into a vicious verbal assault of Jew vs. Christian that’s prime Mametspeak: “You braindead, white socks, country club, plaid pants, Campbell’s soup fucken sheigetz goy,” goes one of the defendant’s more delicate epithets, delivered in between jibes about “getting the priest’s dick out of your son’s ass.” The attorney responds by calling for a pogrom.
But from the sparks of their outrageous clash comes the defendant’s idea of how to bring about peace in the Middle East through readjustment of the fifth lumbar vertebra, a plan the two now united men are eager to take to the Peace Conference.
The peace crusade is put on hold while the priggishly uptight prosecutor deals with his turbulent private life. Switching the courtroom’s George Washington portrait for a Robert Mapplethorpe lily, the scene becomes the home shared by the prosecutor with Bernard (Keith Nobbs), the dim boyfriend affectionately known as Bunny, whom he stalked and seduced at the small leather goods counter at Saks.
Dressed in a leopard-print thong and an apron while simpering about burnt baking pans and ruined pot roasts, Bernard is a gay stereotype deployed by Mamet at his most unsubtle. He may be designed to piss off the P.C. police, but the character becomes tiresome when he invades the courtroom for some off-the-rails hysterics.
En route to the play’s adjournment, such as it is, are countless more detours imposed by the pill-addled judge, who reveals his scarcely veiled racist views, his curiosity about gay sex and afterplay (“And then you watch black-and-white films, no? What is it offends you in the color process?”), his pedophilic episodes and even his off-duty affiliation with the fey bailiff (Steven Hawley).
Exactly what Mamet is getting at with all this, probably only he can say; while his sparring men thrash out ideas concerning religion, sexuality and peace, the themes never coalesce beyond smug mockery. Mostly, it seems like politically incorrect provocation with no deeper purpose.
Despite summoning vague echoes of everyone from Feydeau to Ionesco, Pirandello to Dario Fo, and especially Joe Orton, this febrile play is more notable for its verbal energy than any structural or stylistic finesse. Clocking in at a fraction over 90 minutes, its slightness might have been less abrasive as a one-act.
Under Atlantic a.d. Pepe’s brisk steerage, the ensemble makes the most of Mamet’s dynamic dialogue. Notable among them are Welch as the volatile defense attorney; and Bryggman, who segues from his endearing, genteel turn in “Twelve Angry Men” to a daffy character that’s the polar opposite, given, like the whimsically titled “Romance,” to belligerent outbursts that often amuse but have no resonance.