ROMANCE: Instilling in its audience a new respect for contempt of court.
I don’t know that David Mamet’s is a fine Romance, and it certainly doesn’t conjure love at first scene. But at the Loeb Drama Center, where American Repertory Theatre presents the utterly injudicious courtroom farce through June 7, Romance is a very funny valentine to political incorrectness and the seeming impossibility of the peace process. And it’s scrawled across the stage with the playwright’s signature staccato rhythms and nose-thumbing panache. Moreover, propped up like some addled American eagle at the center of Mamet pal Scott Zigler’s production is the sublime Will LeBow as easily the most ridiculous judge since The Tonight Show fielded the Dancing Itos.
Romance is a potty-mouthed, prejudice-spewing trifle; what’s more, it’s a slow starter, and that seems particularly ungenerous in a show lasting only 95 minutes (which includes intermission). But once it achieves warp speed, in the more cohesive second act, Mamet’s legalistic trip to nowhere, an amalgam of Kafka, Queer Eye, and the Marx Brothers that leaves no epithet unturned, would probably have Golda Meir and Yasser Arafat laughing together in the dark. If Romance is looking to make a point, it may be that ancient enmities will out, whatever veneer of diplomatic pomp and politeness is applied. But the play is mostly looking to be outrageous. (A screen in the lobby scrolls a long list of parties that may be offended; these include “rabbits and rabbit enthusiasts” and “the Welsh.”)
Romance opens in an august and formal chamber of justice where Thomas Derrah’s round-spectacled prosecutor is hectoring Remo Airaldi’s evasive defendant, who’s on trial for a crime the nature of which is never quite explained. Across the room, The Wire actor Jim True-Frost’s defense attorney makes little half-rises to object. But towering over the proceedings is LeBow’s hay-feverish judge, who lacks both Kleenex and any ability to focus on the proceedings. What’s on his scattershot mind is a historic Middle East peace conference that appears to be taking place across town. “May we not have peace?” he beseeches, jumping his gavel across the surface of his desk as if the looming judicial furnishing were a xylophone.
From disorder in the court we move (after a rather protracted blackout) to a conference room where the alliance of the defendant, a Jewish chiropractor, and his counsel, a divorced Episcopalian, quickly degenerates into stereotype-promulgating hate-mongering and name-calling, amid which are couched a few drolleries that do not allude to “greasy hook-nosed sheenies” or “child-molesting thief goy monsters.” The defendant, incredulous that his attorney has scruples about bending the truth, screeches, “Why’d you go to law school if you didn’t want to lie?” And the lawyer, frustrated that his client has taken the stand against advice, wonders whether, when visiting the dentist, the guy insists, “They’re my teeth, let me help.” Before we get back to court, this odd couple have figured out a way to bring peace to the Middle East via chiropractic adjustment, and we’ve had a detour to the gay prosecutor’s home, where he and his pot-roast-burning boy-toy partner, the latter lounging and pouting in a thong, have taken turns trying to out-drama-queen each other in ways that aren’t too funny, especially since LeBow’s judge does not show up to borrow a cup of sugar.