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Review of Romance at the Atlantic Theatre

This play shows Mamet’s continuing exploration of every single genre of film or stage—from screwball comedy (State and Main) to spies (Spartan) to (theft) Heist, to political satire (Wag the Dog), etc. But he’s never done a farce, nor has he done a courtroom drama, and this play is both in one.

Review of the premiere of Romance by David Mamet 3/23/05 at The Atlantic Theatre Company

This play shows Mamet’s continuing exploration of every single genre of film or stage—from screwball comedy (State and Main) to spies (Spartan) to (theft) Heist, (political satire) Wag the Dog, etc. But he’s never done a farce, nor has he done a courtroom drama, and this play is both in one. More over the top than any of his previous comedies, the comedy does, however, true to Mamet, begin with a serious point of departure as the Judge (Larry Bryggman), the comic star of Neil Pepe’s production, interrupts Bob Balaban’s Prosecutor’s interrogation of Defendant Steven Goldstein. The judge holds up the New York Times with a headline on Middle East Peace talks between Arabs and Jews being held in the city (New York?). The judge was even delayed by the parade for the entry of the Peace-talk participants. But he declares this is the week of peace. Balaban, who underplays in true Mamet fashion and has mastered Mametspeak so perfectly one hardly notices the trick, says yes, that the “weak” must be protected from the strong. But that wasn’t the right spelling of “week.” The audience seemed to miss this early gag, but it indicates the level of verbal humor—the visual is much broader.

We audience members never actually learn what the case is about, for interruptions abound—and gay bashing, and Jew-baiting anti-semitic lines are exchanged with anti-Christian lines bashing both sides so heartily that one longs for a week of peace.The second scene of the first act is the most shocking as Christopher Evan Welch, as the Defense attorney, lets slip a slam after being insulted by his client who, in conference, is shocked: “You don’t want to lie? I am truly fucked. Why did you go to Law School?” This provokes Welch’s diatribe rebuking his client for taking the stand against his advice and concluding that he hates being “forced to sit next to you, you sick fuck. You sick Talmudic Jewish”—  and he catches himself and begins an appeal “I most humbly, most humbly, beg your forgiveness” but it soon degenerates to “fucking Kike” and a prayer that the Arabs kill the Jewish children and rape their wives. In print this can be nothing but offensive. In performance it is so over the top that the audience fell over laughing at the outrageous, impossible insults. Goldstein brilliantly escalated the battle as he accepted Welch’s apology and sat down seemingly peaceably only to remark that if his lawyer is late picking up his son from hockey he’ll probably find the priest’s penis in his son’s ass. Who could such a line not offend?

In this production the audience simply laughs at all the outrageousness as it did in William H. Macy’s American Buffalo at the same theatre (2000). The third scene rearranges the stage again, seemingly in a third part of the court, as Balaban makes his final speech to the jury about the need for living by the rule of law in civilized society. Suddenly out of a box which moved downstage center pops Bernard (Keith Nobbs) his seemingly naked, bathing lover and Balaban asks how he liked the speech.

Bernard replies that it was a bit too heavy for his taste, and Balaban is highly offended. We had no idea the set was no longer the courtroom with bathtub, but rather the Prosecutor’s home. If at first the question was how to find peace, the solution is lost first in the defendant’s quarrel with his attorney, and now, in apparently a domestic scene, between lovers. If peace is impossible in the closest most intimate relation between two people, how could it ever be achieved between warring peoples? So while the play seems to mock and trivialize Jews, Christians, gays, straights, and elicits lots of laughs, it also poses a serious question.

The second act, however, never quite resolves the issue. Prosecutor and lover do make up in a return to the courtroom for the whole act. The focus, however, shifts to the judge who, suffering from hay fever, took too many drowsy pills in the first act, and got a new prescription for the next day’s courtroom which instead put him on a high, and this makes his antics the focus of the act, and the farcical actions and lines seem to spin out of control. The judge disrobes, both literally and more literally, escapes his stern Bailiff (Steven Hawley) and Doctor (Jim Frangione).

Perhaps all farce is an extended one-line joke—that is surely the case here. The Defendant ends the second scene with a recognition that he has the solution to a Middle East peace accord—and just needs a continuance to dash off to convince both sides of his solution. One more joke piled on top of this is that underlies court cases like this is simply the desire to have the defendant admit aloud that he’s sorry. For everything. Once he does this, however, Mamet makes mock of a whole cheesy dramatic form as each character steps forward to deliver his secret sin, a series of stunning revelations that virtually end the play. So is Mamet making mock of the whole idea of a single, simple, homey solution to knotty political problems (the first such was Aeschylus having Lysistrata that such complexities were simply like tangled yarn, and one only needed to pull each thread apart individually)? He certainly is, and mocking the audience’s expectation that a story could provide any kind of an answer. Ever since Oleanna he has vociferously denied that he has any “political responsibility” and he would surely do the same here. A postmodern farce like this makes the audience’s expectations as much a satiric target as anything in the real world—to laugh at this play is to laugh with derision at oneself.

By David Sauer

Spring Hill College