by Willard Manus
David Mamet's new play at the Mark Taper Forum, is a verbal farce. Thin on story and action--traditional farce usually involves lots of madcap plot twists, characters racing in and out with much slamming of doors--ROMANCE'S humor is almost all in the dialogue. Mamet has always written pungent, profane lines---one critic called him "the fugleman of the four-letter word"--but this time around he has exceeded himself. The characters in ROMANCE all curse like drill sergeants with no regard whatsoever for political correctness or social niceties.
Jews and Christians rip into each other, insulting each other's religion, looks, traits and histories with much venom and glee. Gays also come in for a tongue-lashing (no pun intended), but Mamet's main targets are pomposity and pretentiousness, especially where lawyers and judges are concerned.
ROMANCE takes place in a courtroom; hence the ripostes against the judicial system. Ed Begley, Jr. plays a vain, vacuous, silver-haired WASP obliged to defend a feisty little Jewish chiropractor (Steven Goldstein) against unnamed charges. The defendant, by the way, believes he can bring peace to the Middle East by adjusting the spines of the Arabs and Israelis.
Jim Frangione plays an obnoxious, blustering prosecutor. But by far the funniest character in the play--after Bernard, the prosecutor's campy, thong-wearing toyboy--is the presiding judge (Larry Bryggman).
Forever popping pills, forgetting the time, losing his way during the trial, going off on half-cocked, bizarre rants about life, sex and justice, the judge is hilariously addlepated. Bryggman, who has spent 35 years toiling in soap operas and doing bit parts on Broadway, rises to the occasion and gives one of the best low-comic performances since the days of Bert Lahr and Bobby Clark.
Steven Hawley as the Bailiff and Todd Weeks as a doctor also weigh in strongly, and director Neil Pepe (benefitting from having mounted this play in New York) keeps things snapping along with swim-team speed and virtuosity.
What is Mamet saying, ultimately? As far as I can deduce, after all the farcical confrontations and revelations, it is this:
everyone has a secret, unsatisfyinmg and probably homosexual love life. Hence the play's ironic title.