[Having said my piece about “David Mamet on Acting & Directing” (16 August), I thought it would only be fair to post my 2005 report on the Atlantic Theater Company’s world première of the playwright’s Romance. The play ran at ATC’s Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea from 1 March to 1 May 2005, garnering a nomination for the 2005 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play. Larry Bryggman, one of the featured actors, was nominated for the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play; he also won the Richard Seff Award and the Obie Award for Performance.]
I saw Mamet’s Romance, a “world premiere,” at the Atlantic Theater Company, on 12 February .
To start with, it’s a farce, including some slapstick moments. And though parts of the play were very funny, they tended to be isolated instances with no apparent connection to anything thematic. In fact, I couldn’t determine a point to the play at all; if Mamet was saying anything, I didn’t see it. The thing is a silly riff on courtroom dramas—the characters, except one, have no names, only designations: The Prosecutor, The Defendant, and so on—interwoven with gay romance (I guess that’s where the title comes from) and the visit to the city by a Palestinian-Israeli peace delegation.
The exact nature of the court case is never really clear, but the Defendant is questioned about a visit to Hawaii he may or may not have made and some notations in his agenda (diary/datebook). Most of this, the bulk of the first act, is tedious, if silly, except that the Judge (Larry Bryggman) has hay fever and has taken some medication that makes him loopy. He interrupts the proceedings, goes off on tangents, and starts irrelevant conversations—such as a recurring one about the parade celebrating the arrival of the peace delegation that has snarled traffic and caused the Judge to be late for court—as he gets loopier and loopier. (He forgets if he took his pill, so he keeps taking more.) This is the part that’s often funny—but to no avail, as far as I could see. The Judge was very funny, indeed, but his humor wasn’t related to anything else going on—which was part of the joke: he’d go off on irrelevant side trips, like the difference between a chiropractor and a chiropodist. (That joke came up several times. The Judge found it hard to believe that someone would be paid for feeling people’s feet! Very funny. Not!) I suppose you could make a funny little monologue out of the Judge’s lines, completely separate from the play.
The second scene of the first act is between the Defendant and the Defense Attorney in a conference room, where we learn that the former is Jewish (he’s the chiropractor, by the way) and that the latter is Episcopalian. (One joke: An Episcopalian is a Catholic who drives a Volvo. I don’t get why that’s funny—even if it were true.) This leads to some derogatory name-calling (while the Bailiff is standing there, trying to take a lunch order!). The Defendant demands that his lawyer lie in court for him. (A lawyer who won’t lie? What’s that about?) This ultimately goes nowhere, except to initiate the mutual diatribes (which also don’t go anywhere). Suddenly, the Defendant conceives of an idea to bring peace to the Middle East—if he can get out of court and get to the peace conference before it disbands. We don’t really know what his plan is, but his lawyer sees it as a miracle and the two are back in league.
The last scene in the act is between the Prosecutor back home and his gay lover. It’s a domestic tiff, except that Bernard (the only character with a name) is a swishy young queen—and a domestic type from the same stereotype I gather, as the guys from the “reality” TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. (I’ve never actually seen that show, but I’ve heard about it enough to make a stab at the gist.) He’s a sort of transgender Martha Stewart, I guess. The Prosecutor (Bob Balaban) is a middle-aged conservative type—a miss-match for Bernard—and they break up.
All this is a sort of set up for act two. Back in court, the Defense Attorney is moving to get the trial continued so his client can get to the peace delegates before they disperse and go home. The Prosecutor objects, of course, but they don’t really seem to be on the same page. The Judge is loopier than ever, of course—he’s gotten new medication, but he still can’t keep track of what he’s taken. In this jumble of a scene, we learn that the Defendant wants to go to the conference so he can align the spines of the delegates and, thus, bring them back to bodily harmony, after which they will declare peace. (How would that sit with the people back in the Middle East?! All they all need is for their leaders’ spines to be aligned!) Bernard shows up (in court, remember—he just walks in) and brings the domestic dispute into the proceedings. A witness is on the stand—a Doctor—and, for reasons I’ve forgotten, he gets into a tussle with Bernard and they do slapstick falls all over the courtroom furniture. (Somewhere along the line, some of the characters partly stripped; I think the Judge, because of the medications, had gotten overheated.) I don’t know the point of having done this—it struck me as gratuitous—but it was well executed and pretty funny as a set piece. Also in this mélange, everyone starts gratuitous confessions—most of which are irrelevant to the plot or even the court case (the actual subject of which we still don’t know); just “secrets” from their lives. (There’s a whole bit with the Judge announcing that he’s actually Jewish because his father was Jewish. The Defendant explains to him that unless his mother’s Jewish, he really isn’t. The Judge is relieved. This bit’s also supposed to be funny, though I don’t see the humor.) Also, bits of the back-story come out—including the fact that Bernard had spent a vacation in Hawaii where he’d had a one-night stand with the Defendant. (Remember the question that was before the Defendant when the play began?) They had met in the same place the Prosecutor had met Bernard—at a leather goods counter at some store where Bernard works. That’s when the Defendant had bought the agenda that had been in question in act one, and it suddenly explains the cryptic notations the Prosecutor had asked about and tried to interpret. (In one instance, there had been a small sketch of a rabbit. Bernard’s nickname is Bunny! I actually saw this coming as soon as “Bunny” was introduced at the end of act one.) I never figured out what all this had to do with the “case”—or the play in general. At the end of the melee, we hear the sirens that announce the end of the conference as the delegates leave to go home.
I realize that mostly what I’ve done is précis the plot here, which isn’t really a report on the production, but there wasn’t anything remarkable one way or the other about the acting, directing (by Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater), or design. The performance was fine (especially Bryggman’s Judge), but Mamet’s text didn’t have anything to say—hence the emphasis on the story. It was like a college skit—an adolescent take on a Saturday Night Live sketch (or is that redundant?) which went on way too long. I didn’t find anything substantial in it—and neither did my friend Diana, who was with me. (She made a trip to the bathroom after the show and said other audience members waiting there were saying the same sort of thing.) It may be a mark of the problem I had with Romance that in the week or so after I saw it, I had forgotten many of the details of the performance. (A lesson to write my report sooner after I see the show.) [I finished this report on 22 February.]
I wonder if Mamet wrote Romance specifically so ATC could premiere it, maybe even under pressure from Neil Pepe. Mamet’s a founder of the theater company, which has done Mamet plays before, but never a première. If he didn’t have a play he really wanted to write, he might have just thrown something together to satisfy his friends, but without much commitment. That’s a pure guess, of course.
The New York Times reviewed Romance on 2 March and for once, Ben Brantley and I agree on the outcome. He found more significance in the play in terms of Mamet’s oeuvre than I did, but that’s the only real split between his opinion and mine. [Back in 2005, I didn’t include the review round-up that’s part of my ROT performance reports now.] The Times later announced that Romance was opening in London at the Almeida Theatre in September . I wondered if the London producers hadn’t seen the play here.
Now, here’s a short quiz: Name another play in which a major character is a chiropractor. (Answer: It’s William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba. “Doc”—Burt Lancaster in the 1952 film—was a chiropractor. Remember now?)