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Mamet adds humor to his arsenal in 'Romance'

October 11, 2005|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

David Mamet has long been American drama's fugleman of four-letter words. But his latest play is shocking due to a new F-word: funny.

"Romance" is indeed a funny play, but it's also as intricately plotted and thematically pregnant as his other acclaimed, non-comedic works that introduced American theater to the poetry of profanity. This was lost amid the laughter (first nervous, then uproarious) that greeted the play's world premiere in New York City earlier this year. An over-the-top farce about a chiropractor's attempt to bring peace to the Middle East, "Romance" marked Mamet's first attempt at true stage comedy, and many were confused about how to judge the play's merits, beyond its ability to elicit gasps and guffaws from unsuspecting audiences.

The play, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, preserves all of the laughter from that Atlantic Theater Company staging, but thanks to a few minor changes (involving casting and some tweaks to the script) "Romance" reaffirms Mamet's immense -- and seemingly instinctual -- talent for making bold theater that brims with relevance.

More on Mamet and the new cast members in a minute. But first, any opening argument on the merits of this madcap courtroom comedy cannot proceed without mentioning Larry Bryggman.

There is nothing in this character actor's resume (which includes a number of acclaimed supporting performances in dramatic Broadway fare, as well as 35 years on the daytime drama "As the World Turns") that hints at a mastery of comic timing. Yet, there is no denying the facts: In the part of the Judge, Bryggman gives one of the finest comedic performances seen on an American stage this decade (only Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock or Alan Bates' Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin from 2002's "Fortune's Fool" could be counted as serious competition).

Exhibit A is Bryggman's expert elucidation of the Judge's novel approach to keeping sex offenders off the street. (Hint: It involves a tomato.) His inspired delivery of these lines, which occur in the play's riotous second act, prompted tears -- despite being prepared for the scene from a previous viewing. Yes, "Romance" is so funny it may make you cry.

(Note: It's also so vulgar it may make you blush. Those who can't handle an episode of "South Park" may want to consider staying home and reading "Inherit the Wind" or other traditional courtroom dramas.)

Bryggman may wield the gavel over these proceedings, but he is supported by a fine cast of comedians. Reprising their roles from the Atlantic premiere are Steven Goldstein as the cagey Defendant and Steven Hawley as the Bailiff with a weakness for weepy old westerns.

Jim Frangione has been promoted from the small role of the Doctor (played here by Todd Weeks) and takes the part of the Prosecutor, previously created by Bob Balaban. Replacing a duke of deadpan like Balaban is no easy task. Frangione's Prosecutor favors bluster over nervous repression, but it's a choice that works.

Director Neil Pepe also substitutes a face familiar from Christopher Guest's movies: Ed Begley Jr., who is cast against type as the pompous, anti-Semitic attorney who has to defend his Jewish client against charges, that in Mamet's absurdist trial, are never explained.

The most welcome addition to the cast though is Noah Bean as Bernard, the boy toy. The role of the gay lover -- who first appears in only a leopard-print thong -- may seem like superfluous gag, but Bernard is the keystone of the play's highly transparent but well-designed structure. The part of the apron-wearing houseboy should get laughs, yet he shouldn't devolve into complete caricature. Though Bean is certainly campy, he adds at least a touch (a feather's touch, naturally) of realism to the role that bolsters what was before the least convincing aspect of an otherwise assured script.

Pepe's handling of Mamet's dialogue is finely patterned, and his blocking, for the most, part feels effortless -- though some of the fight scenes and physical comedy seemed a bit measured. Perhaps this, along with a slightly sluggish overall pace, was due to a Sunday opening after a Saturday night preview -- or an injury to the persevering Begley, which may have resulted in last minute restaging -- but these are small quibbles that may be remedied as the run continues.

Bryggman's performance alone makes "Romance" a notable theatrical event, but Mamet's text also merits attention. Mamet's literary output has never slowed in the 30 years since he jolted contemporary theater with "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," but of late, his pen has been employed more for books and film scripts. The playwright has fared quite well with this -- especially in Hollywood -- but recent revivals of "American Buffalo" with William H. Macy and "Glengarry Glen Ross" with Liev Schreiber have served as reminders of how singularly alive Mamet's writing can be on stage.

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