“So much of life is the choice between the lesser of two evils” reflects Frasier’s John Mahoney as the Judge in the European premiere of David Mamet’s latest play Romance, and by the end of the evening, I must admit, I agree with him. Between watching this play and nailing my head to the floor, I would have found it very difficult to choose.
The trouble with Mamet’s play is certainly not its ambition. Hosting the drama in a courtroom, the purportedly neutral arena of conflict resolution between the individual and the state, while, offstage, the Israelis and the Palestinians talk peace in a country where the American arbitrators are clearly not neutral, underlines this.
Introducing the theme of how far we cover up or repress our socially unacceptable or frowned-upon behaviour is another example. Throwing in the ubiquitous early 21st century theme of the “need to confess” publicly shows that Mamet really is tackling some big fish. Ultimately, though, why none of it works is that Mamet really can’t write farce.
The first act starts promisingly – the elements of jeopardy are introduced and the characters’ weaknesses are made clear. By the end of the half we are left wondering what madness might ensue from a vicious anti-Semite representing a Jew, a closeted homosexual prosecutor tiffing with his boyfriend, and a judge who doesn’t seem to know what day it is. We are also left with the puzzle of what exactly the Defendant is accused of.
A shame, then, that the second act descends into something worse than an episode of Gimme Gimme Gimme. Perhaps Mamet is trying to show the dualism of life by literally making one half of his play quite good and the other absolute rubbish? By that yardstick, the play would be a success.
Except I don’t think he did. And this is puzzling. Responsible for some of the most crackling dialogue in theatre history, not to mention some of the fruitiest, by the end he has transformed himself into the lamest of lame sitcom writers. Look! The judge is taking too many pills and starts taking his clothes off! Oh no! The Prosecutor’s boyfriend has turned up in court with a baking tray! Laugh? Not even close.
Mamet’s attempt to draw the absurdity and irrationality of religious and racial conflict out using the device of farce misses the boat on one key fact – the play’s not funny. True, it’s not helped by some mediocre performances from the cast – only Nigel Lindsay as the Defendant and Paul Ready as Bernard really stand out – but given the poverty of the material they have to work with as the play drags on, this is somewhat forgivable.
The audience, however, did seem in a large part to find the outrageous racial slanging matches, as well as the odd reference to Catholic child molestation, hilarious.
Mamet’s plays usually overflow with ideas and strong characters. Romance is no exception in this regard. Where it goes wrong is that it confuses farce with crude slapstick and shouting and then tries to shoehorn its message in through the medium of an incoherent Judge, whose judgements we barely trust or care about.
Much like the peace negotiations that are the backdrop to the play, I started full of hope, and ended up feeling thoroughly let down.