Taking on Mamet’s Surprising Comedy

Posted on 12 August 2010

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By Ellen Frankman

 “The title of this play is not a misnomer,” Reg Rogers insists, the actor who plays a defense attorney in this month’s production of David Mamet’s “Romance” at Bay Street Theatre. It certainly seems however, that audience members may have to dig deep – or perhaps just stick to the surface of absurdity – to confirm this.

Mamet’s “Romance” appears inherently unromantic in fact – a biting conceptualization of a farce that sets nearly every existing ethnic and sexual stereotype amidst the setting of a traditional courtroom drama. The defendant is a Jewish chiropractor, on trial facing a pill-popping judge, defended by an anti-Semitic defense attorney, who is battling a homosexual prosecutor. To laugh at the characters it is suggested that the audience be willing to laugh at human madness itself.

“Romance” first premiered in 2005 with the Atlantic Theater Company, a theater group founded in 1985 by William H. Macy and David Mamet himself. In order to master the scathing humor that emanates from the production, the cast (gratefully an all-star lineup) first had to perfect the staccato rhythm signature to Mamet’s language.

“Mamet’s language is so specific and tricky. You really have to be on the syllable,” explains Chris Bauer who plays the courtroom’s prosecutor, a character he describes as being “verbose, over-mannered, aggressive and obsessive.” Bauer even admits to having started memorizing his part much earlier than what is typical for him.

For actor Richard Kind (Judge), the language — which requires that every word, every breath, every pause be exact — is “close to impossible.”

“This is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to work on in my life. Literally my brain hurts,” says Kind. Although the words sound as they should coming from the characters’ mouths, Kind insists that “gobbledygook” is in fact what the person is actually saying.

Joe Pallister (Doctor) found the style equally as nuanced. “It’s got a very specific rhythm. It’s like music. You can’t paraphrase this type of writing,” says Pallister.

“He wrote a symphony and you can’t start playing any notes you want to,” Kind agrees laughingly.

Ultimately, the true thrill of theater emerges from mastery of the script. “It’s so satisfying when you get it right,” grins Pallister.

And the show’s director Lisa Peterson agrees. “When it’s right, it’s exhilarating!”

There is more to “Romance” than a taxing twist of the tongue, however. “The other part that’s so exciting is how naughty it is,” describes Peterson, who expressed surprise and a modest smirk of approval in the fact that the only insults Mamet chose to not include are those about women.

The cast, described as a “dream come true” by Bauer, is entirely male, “all very good actors and funny guys” according to Peterson, who finds that “they all come at the work at very different angles.” Each one recognizes the absurdity of the content, and though all back the genius of Mamet’s language, few are certain of what the audience’s reaction will be.

“If you’re not liberal hearing and of liberal humor, stay away,” advises Kind. “This is not ‘Hello Dolly.’”

Most of the actors remain positive in anticipation of the public’s reception. Though Bauer admits, “it’s an outrageous 85 minutes,” he exudes confidence in that it is “a play that is dangerous in the way theater should be dangerous.”

Pallister is trusting of the audience as well. “The crowd here I think will be open because it’s so over the top and so politically incorrect.”

“I see them getting it and being taken by it,” agrees Matt McGrath (Bernard).

Whatever the outcome, it appears everyone involved is giddy to take the production on stage. “You’ve got to have the partner of the audience to make the rhythm work,” explains Peterson.

And beneath its charming traditional exterior, Bay Street Theatre certainly gets credit along with its actors for taking on such a challenge. Says Kind, “I love this theater. I think it’s a very brave theater.”

David Mamet’s “Romance” directed by Lisa Peterson will premiere at Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor on August 10 and run through September 5. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets $55/$65. 725-9500.

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