Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"Romance" — a Comedy by David
Atlantic Theater, Manhattan
One expects intense, sometimes lethal, drama, from playwright David Mamet, as his characters struggle with crime, sexism, cutthroat competition. And the dialogue, written in his inimitable clipped choppy style is often searing. But funny?
Yet, this time around, in “Romance,” this American-Jewish playwright has turned to comedy—farce, to be exact, and he proves to be the master of the genre, while maintaining his own distinctive voice. Not that he doesn’t skewer contemporary values. In fact, he takes on the Arab-Israeli struggle, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, infidelity, and our own judicial system. The title “Romance” is certainly a misnomer—as there’s little if any romance between these embattled characters.
Now enjoying its “world premiere” off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater, ”Romance” takes place mostly in the somber, no-nonsense setting of a traditional courtroom. This is a clever choice of stage set,as it throws one off guard and leads one to expect a serious, orderly judicial process. But Mamet’s courtroom play is anything but that. It is Theatre of the Absurd—or, more specifically, the Marx Brothers meet “American Buffalo.” Mamet deals with a chiropractor who is on trial for having assaulted a chiropodist, angered by having his profession mistaken for the latter. But the case goes round in circles as the two lawyers trade legal gobble-de-gook. And just outside the courtroom, we learn, Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in peace talks.
Unfortunately “Romance” is too slow getting off the ground, as the lawyers and defendant wrangle endlessly. It is only when Mamet moves into his outrageous second act that the play takes off like a rocket under Neil Pepe’s direction. If only Mamet had stripped away the early scenes and made this last act his entire play, injecting the factual material as needed. The dialogue is fast and funny, as the judge focuses on his own concerns, ignoring the case before him. “Did I take my pill?” he constantly asks the Bailiff, who hovers over him like a concerned mother. (This judge could easily be played by Groucho, although Larry Bryggman is splendid in the role.) At the same time, the defendant and his lawyer have come up with a solution to the Mid-East crisis—the chiropractic procedure! It is simply a matter of aligning the spines of Jewish and Arab leaders. But the addled judge never hears them out. He is too busy taking pills and reflecting on whether Shakespeare was Jewish, and wondering if he himself is Jewish. Added to the mix is the prosecutor who turns out to be gay, “outed” when his lover appears and disrupts the courtroom proceedings.
This all sounds like an unlikely, indigestible stew, but actually it turns into delicious farce, as non-sequiturs are traded rapid-fire. Think of a Marx movie or old-time vaudeville. This versatile playwright has conquered an ancient form, using it well which to comment on the absurdities of our times.
-- Irene Backalenick
March 2, 2005