Keith Nobbs and Bob Balaban in Romance(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Keith Nobbs and Bob Balaban in Romance
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Perhaps when David Mamet was young, he got a huge jolt from Laugh-In's "Here Come de Judge" sketches, wherein Sammy Davis Jr. shuffled around in black robes promoting disorder in the court. Or maybe Mamet never tuned in to George Schlatter's weekly laff riot but, ever since his Chicago-suburb childhood, has harbored a love for vaudeville and burlesque baggy-pants shenanigans. It really doesn't matter what were the models (if any) for the ever-busy Mamet's Romance; what matters is that this absurdist courtroom play will keep audiences giggling for years.

To describe what goes during the fast-paced two acts is beside the point, if Mamet even has a point here. Nonetheless, here goes: An uptight prosecuting attorney (Bob Balaban) has taken the floor of a courtroom (a dead-on design by Robert Brill, complete with a portrait of George Washington) to query a taciturn defendant (Steven Goldstein) about who-knows-what crime. The sneezing judge (Larry Bryggman) is having troubled following the argument and isn't getting any help from pills dispensed to him by a burly bailiff (Steven Hawley). The calculating defense attorney (Christopher Evan Welch) is signaling his snappish client but making no connection.

That's because, as we discover in Mamet's second scene, the defense attorney and the defendant don't like each other. They take to respectively anti-Semitic and anti-WASP name-calling; these epithets are thrown like mud pies and, like mud pies they soil but don't bruise. So the two bury the verbal hatchet when the defendant, a chiropractor (not a chiropodist -- don't ask), decides that he's got a spine-straightening solution to offer at a peace conference that's taking place across town. Meanwhile, the prosecuting attorney tries out a speech on his nelly boyfriend Bernard (Keith Nobbs) but the two get side-tracked when the roast burns. Then it's back to court for Act II where, among other developments occurring before lighting designer James F. Ingalls fades the fresnels for good, a determined doctor (Jim Frangione) arrives to give the judge a shot and subsequently has his pants pulled off in a skirmish with the chiropractor. All of these people do or don't live happily ever after.

Got that? Machs nicht if you haven't. Mamet is simply in the mood to be anarchic in a supposedly civilized environment and has chosen to follow his impulses by seeing now many non sequiturs it takes to screw in a screwball comedy. Well, it takes a million of 'em, and some are thigh-slappingly funny -- though not out of context. There's no use quoting Mamet's chuckle-inducing lines because it's their coming from nowhere that makes them land. Would you laugh if I reported the judge's remark, "I once had an affair with the only ugly girl in Iceland"? Maybe you would -- but you'd laugh louder in the theater.

Because the logic of Romance is illogic, Mamet poses himself a particular challenge. If he doesn't keep the lines and incidents funny, he risks losing patrons' attention and forbearance. Indeed, there are moments -- but not stretches -- when he bobbles the ball, so he wouldn't be doing his often hilarious piece a disservice if he were to cut 10 or 15 minutes from the giddy proceedings. For one thing, the play doesn't need an act break. (By the way, the title -- rendered on the program in legal-document Gothic lettering -- is ironic in that there's no romance in the script.)

With a playwright like Mamet, with a setting like a courtroom, and with men in serious suits like the ones that costume designer Sarah Edwards has picked out, the thought occurs that maybe Romance does have a point after all. When the laughs stop for a minute or two, it's easy to slip into conjecture mode. Perhaps Mamet wants to declare that, the way things are going in courts now, justice isn't blind; it's cockeyed. Perhaps with the weasel-y prosecuting attorney who eventually announces his homosexuality to those assembled, Mamet's having a belated laugh at the famously closeted Roy Cohn and his predilection for boys. Perhaps there's a reason why the judge, eventually stripped to his skivvies, sports a Hitler-esque mustache. Or perhaps not.

The cast of Romance(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
The cast of Romance
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
More likely, the scribe wants to offer actors affiliated with his Atlantic Theater Company the chance to show off their talent for buffoonery. Under Neil Pepe's hyper-crisp direction, the cast comes through with flying cholers, speaking Mamet's sliced-and-diced dialogue like masters. First among equals is the red-faced Larry Bryggman, whose judge is a slovenly joy -- especially when, in confessing that he's Jewish, he comes to learn that he isn't. Bob Balaban, who does resemble Roy Cohn here, constantly appears to be shaking inside while remaining still outside. Steven Goldstein's Jewish chiropractor is a delight, never more so than when exchanging non-P.C. charges with Christopher Evan Welch's lumbering, uncertain defense attorney. Keith Nobbs, than whom there is currently no New York actor rising faster, makes mincemeat of the mincing Bernard. In third banana roles, Steven Hawley and Jim Frangione hit just the right comic rhythm.

Because Romance features an all-male cast and because Mamet's all-male Glengarry Glen Ross is just about to reopen on Broadway, comparisons between the two works clamor to be made. Though they are very different in many ways, both do concern men behaving badly. So call Romance the inside-out version of Glengarry Glen Ross, but whatever you call it, be sure to see it.