nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 5, 2005
David Mamet's new play Romance is very funny. It's also, in its way, very pointed. But it's not especially probing, or deep; at an hour and a half (including an intermission), it feels too long, like a really sharp 20-minute sketch stretched way, way out.
It is the occasion, though, for a spectacular comedic turn by the fine actor Larry Bryggman, who cuts loose here with bracingly hilarious panache that would have done both Groucho and Harpo proud. He plays a Judge who is supposed to be presiding over a trial, the exact nature of which is never disclosed (nor does it need to be). But he's suffering from hay fever and his medication isn't working right; he keeps taking pills even though the Bailiff tells him he doesn't need any more. The pills distract him on the first day of the trial, which he interrupts suddenly to make an observation about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Different pills make him giddy on the second day of the trial, leading him to ask a number of impertinent questions on the order of "Was Shakespeare a fag?," to make some disturbing allusions to having abused children and dallied with the Bailiff on Ibiza, and to eventually lose his pants. (Romance is a farce; he's not the only one.)
Bryggman embraces the surreality of this Judge with such glee and commitment that the character's internal logic remains intact. He's emblematic of what I think Mamet's is trying to tell us: that the System (not only the justice system specifically, but the whole American polity in general) is badly broken, haywire, on its ear (or another body part that I am too polite to mention; though Mamet, being Mamet, is not). Is there resonance in a courtroom comedy that makes an unextraordinary proceeding into a travesty and a circus? You bet—just watch CNN (while I was at lunch a few minutes ago, the breaking news was all about Michael Jackson coming an hour and a half late to court in pajama bottoms).
The other characters in Romance twit expectations as well. Bob Balaban plays a buttoned-down prosecutor who, we learn in Scene 3, is having a turbulent affair with an effeminate gay boy (portrayed by Keith Nobbs) who cooks, apparently, wearing just a skimpy thong and an apron. Christopher Evan Welch plays a Christian defense attorney who looks and conducts himself alarmingly like Al Gore, except when he gets into a nasty name-calling match with his Jewish client (played by Steven Goldstein) in Scene 2. The point of all of this shouting is, I guess, more of the same: we can't get along, our infrastructure is crumbling, our national psyche is heading toward meltdown.
In any event, the nastiness and the anarchy—very much a Marx Brothers meets Monty Python atmosphere—gets tiresome rather quickly; my interest in what was going on fizzled out a good 15 or 20 minutes before the play finally ended, even with the addition of a supercilious doctor (well-played by Jim Frangione) and the sudden animation of the usually silent Bailiff (also nicely acted, by Steven Hawley).
Production values are excellent save one glaring problem—set designer Robert Brill makes the economic choice to have one of the heavy wooden courtroom benches double as (I guess) the prosecutor's living room sofa. This does not work at all; it took me about half of Scene 3 to understand that we had left the courthouse and were in somebody's home. Neil Pepe's staging is taut, tough, and Mametian; so is the play; but it's too slight to make for a satisfying afternoon or evening of theatre.