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A CurtainUp BostonReview
Romance Launches the American Repertory Theater's Mamet Festival
By Larry Switzky
Why Mamet now? Why Romance which received mixed reviews during its 2005 run at the Atlantic Theater Company? According to ART acting Artistic Director Gideon Lester, Mamet concludes the theater's exploration of the twentieth century through Chekhov and Beckett since, as in Beckett, his recent stage work suggests mysterious depths beneath a vaudevillian surface.
Lester also had a "hunch" that the ART could do a better job with theplay. After all when Boston Marriage, the first in Mamet's triptych of savage farces (the most recent is November) opened at the ART in 1999 with Felicity Huffman and Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon it garnered far more positive reviews than during its subsequent run at the Public Theatre.
Although Romance takes place mostly in a courtroom, Lester believes that its relevance has less to do with criminal justice than "the way we dress up our tribalist instincts with social niceties." It's also an extraordinarily> personal play in that it shows Mamet grappling with his Jewish heritage and male sexuality.
The ART's production is as lavish a staging as Romance is ever likely to get. J. Michael Griggs's intimidating courtroom, bordered by an enormous mural and blown up portraits of old, white jurists, suggests a country with a serious inferiority complex. The plot, such as it is, concerns the trial of a defendant (Remo Airaldi) for a vague crime while a Middle Eastern peace conference rages in the background amd the prosecuting attorney (Thomas Derrah) tries to sort out his relationship with his philandering partner, Bernard (Carl Foreman).
ART veterans Airaldi, Derrah and LeBow (The Judge) are joined by The Wire's Jim True-Frost (The Defense Attorney) and Jim Senti (The Bailiff). The ensemble plays solid, often feverishly inspired, verbal slapstick, though True-Frost doesn't have the seasoned comic chops of the regulars. Will LeBow as the Judge whose pill-popping non-sequiturs can galvanize or sink the play gives one of his greatest performances here. He makes a coughing fit into a seismic comic event.
Romance is a transitional piece for Mamet, somewhere between a five-fingerexercise and a total reinvention of his technique. It's a response to those who've said that he can't write comedy or oddball characters, though, in truth, he's been doing both for years. It also allows him some room to play with structure even within the mathematical confines of farce.
Although the ART has been publicizing the play as a carnival of offense, Scott Zigler's production gleams because it is so controlled and rigorous. So, see it because it's part of Mamet's self-willed evolution. See it because it's great fun. And see it because it may be the best production of the play we'll ever get.
A word about the title. Though there are a number of real and implied romantic involvements in the play, the title has stumped some audiences and critics. I think that author is referring to the stage genre of "romance" here. As he defines it in Three Uses of the Knife: "Romance celebrates the inevitable salvation/triumph of the individual over (or through the actions of) the gods—such triumph due, finally, not even to exertion but to some inherent (if unsuspected) excellence on the part of the protagonist."
To read Elyse Sommer's review of the New York production . For more about Mamet and his work, see Curtainup's David Mamet Backgrounder