Thursday, June 11, 2009

Isn't it "romantic" . . ?

Will Lebow holds court in Romance.

I checked out the ART production of David Mamet's Romance last weekend because there was IRNE buzz around Will Lebow's performance, so I felt I had to see it. But I have to confess the play was somewhat more interesting than it's been given credit for being (somewhat more interesting, that is). And the production, directed by Scott Zigler, was very slick, with a nifty set by Michael Griggs and a generally crack ensemble.

It's true that the play isn't quite as interesting as the cleverly engineered November was at the Lyric last fall (nor was the ensemble actually any stronger - the Lyric cast was brilliant). But then Romance is more a sketch than a play - it's really just funny fragments glued together in a thematic mosaic, whereas November is a rather well-structured farce. Although even November wasn't quite what the playwright wanted to pretend it was (he blew all kinds of smoke about it being a battle between the "tragic" and "optimistic" views of life); the sad fact is that Mamet hasn't produced an important play since Speed-the-Plow (if even that one is truly important), and it does seem that things have really been thinning out recently. Perhaps sensing the flyweight nature of this latest, the ART floated the idea to a few naïve reviewers that there was some kind of cultural throughline to this year's season, apparently leading from Chekhov (The Seagull) through Beckett (Endgame) to - wait for it - Mamet. Right. ROFLMAO.

Elsewhere the ART took the more sophisticated tack that Romance was somehow bracing and subversive because of its barrage of ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual slurs, but so many comics, radio hosts and cable shows have mined the same territory that none of this plays out as particularly transgressive. Not that Mamet's inventive insults are quite "archaic," as the youngest critic in town put it, because occasionally the bickering does tap into current political live wires (as when the playwright takes aim at our hands-off attitude toward Muslims, or pedophile priests). But generally all the bigotry plays more as coda than salvo, like the crude "Americana" of Mel Brooks's The Producers, which after 9/11 somehow transmuted ironic bigotry into patriotic gesture.

The disjuncture between this supposedly "offensive" banter and the play's oh-so-innocent title mystified several local critics, but the text is, indeed, obviously a romance, or rather a "bromance" - because, for one thing, there are no heterosexual women in it, which means Mamet is able to lower his defenses and conjure something like an atmosphere of fraternal affection out of all his bigoted, but at least honest, bathos. To Mamet, heterosexual women are a deep existential threat, and if they're present in one of his plays, it often devolves into some kind of trap for its hero. Homosexual women are a different story, however - Mamet kind of digs them, and he's not particularly homophobic toward gay men, either - we're allowed in the testosterone treehouse (although there's an intriguing meta-insult toward my tribe embedded in the play; more on that later).

But what is it about Mamet and heterosexual women? It is a puzzlement. Heterosexual women don't seem fully human to Mamet, and unsurprisingly, their opinion of him tends to mirror that assessment. Years ago, I went to the same gym that Mamet did in Harvard Square. And the few times I mentioned this to friends, the women present would always ask, "Have you ever seen him naked? How big is his penis?" Now don't worry, I'm not telling. I only mention this because I've never had women ask me that particular question about any other guy. Ever. So perhaps Mr. Mamet should be aware of what exactly his writing has suggested to approximately half of his audience.

Or maybe it's just that, as Harry told Sally, sex ruins everything for Mamet. Strange, then, that man-on-man love is what ties up all the loose narrative ends of Romance. The story, if you can call it that, revolves around the trial of a chiropractor for - well, we never know what, exactly, that's the play's MacGuffin. The script's genuine action begins when the defense lawyer, in private consult with the Jewish defendant, explodes that a particularly recondite rhetorical strategy is "talmudic . . . so Jewish . . ." He immediately apologizes profusely, and awkwardly, for this blast of seemingly honest ethnic contempt. As an excuse he claims he's exhausted, because he had to get up early to drive his kid to a hockey game at church. To which his client calmly responds, "So, do you think the priest will have his dick out of your kid's ass by the time you pick him up?"
Nice. And things move on, or perhaps down, from there; the scene devolves (or escalates!) into a wild orgy of slurs, some second-hand, but genuinely clever, others newly-formed things of beauty. Then comes the odd meta-insult of the play - a weird scene between the gay prosecuting attorney and his be-thonged lover, in a sex pad decorated in something like Caravaggio-meets-David-Hockney, in which it's revealed that this kike Mamet has no idea how actual faggots like me behave. (In case you can't tell, this review is taking the same stylistic turn as its subject.) Or maybe that is the idea (after all, later on a key character inquires of that gay attorney, "So what do you guys actually do?"). 

 Still, if the scene is unbelievable on its surface, it resonates slightly structurally, because Mamet intends us to understand that gay sex is the hil-arious mystery secret, the double-identity charm that will allow this farce to function. In ancient times, of course, this secret was usually identified with someone at the bottom of the social strata (a woman, or a slave) - and at the ART, that be-thonged lover isn't just gay, but also black, just to touch both bases, apparently. Most interestingly, he's also accorded a name (all the other characters are described by social role) - "Bunny." Thus, he's human, and not defined by his function - or is he? After all, "Bunny" is a kind of patronizing insult that references the ass - and yet is also weirdly close to "buddy," the ultimate man's-man term of affection. (See this is one of those moments that I think maybe Mamet should just suck some cock to get it over with.)

But I digress. All these scenes, it turns out, have been mere prep for the wackily operatic slur-fest that takes up the entire second act, in which the trial resumes, with a judge (Will Lebow, above) who has overdosed on his allergy medication and thus begun to experience "psycho-active side-effects." Here Mamet pretty much abandons all plot, and motivation, too, and just goes after thematic pastiche and silly effects: because he wants to show us that his 'characters' are getting emotionally naked, for instance, he has the judge tear off his clothes for no reason, and Bunny likewise makes a surprising, gay-us ex machina appearance because the playwright needs to wrap things up, etc. 

Thus Romance basically stops being a play, but it remains a pretty funny essay, at least as delivered by Lebow, who manages to constantly connect the very disparate dots of Mamet's dialogue. And Lebow somehow channels a Paddy-Chayefsky or Norman-Lear-like Jewish-liberal befuddlement (we half-expect Bea Arthur to rise from the grave and do a walk-on) that keeps the goings-on endearing, and dodges the WASP-wannabe chill that is the ART's dominant mode.

For this, I suppose, is Mamet's sentimental point; in his world, it's the cold manipulation of masculine language that keeps us apart; once we just begin to get sloppy and honest, it doesn't really matter that we're insulting each other, because everybody has a secret shame that we'd all just be better off exposing. (Ah, that locker room again.) Indeed, at the end of Romance, characters begin spontaneously confessing to everything under the sun, while across town, a Mideast peace conference falls apart because of a single insult. Just one insult. Wow. Isn't that ironic? I mean romantic?

Well, thank God we've had Will Lebow to sell us this weird, over-extended but under-developed piece of dramaturgy. Indeed, rarely has a "play" depended quite so much on its central performance. Watching him take his bow, it struck me just how versatile this mainstay of the ART and Huntington has proved over the years (to be fair, Thomas Derrah and Remo Airaldi both crackled here, too) - and how much less we may be seeing him under the disco-gospel directorship of incoming Artistic Director Diane Paulus. Or should we actually be glad that the ART is cutting its already-tiny acting company loose, because that way we'll get to see them in better, more serious productions elsewhere? Let's hope that's the silver lining glimmering from the clouds of this theatre's coming season.


  1. So ART, which hasn't been American-focused for decades, also won't be a repertory theatre?

    Sorry to see those talented actors be unmoored, after all the crap and changes they had to wade through.

  2. Not really. Of course it hasn't been a "repertory" house for years, but they did hang onto the vestiges of an acting company - Will Lebow, Karen Macdonald, Thomas Derrah, and Remo Airaldi. More than ever before, however, Diane Paulus is bringing in visiting productions or doing musicals or conceptual extravaganzas that it's hard to see any of these actors being right for. The theatre IS doing one straight play, Paradise Lost by Clifford Odets, so perhaps we'll see them in that. There's also some talk of a possible touring production. You're quite right about the theatre's title, however - it hardly represents truth in advertising.