In terms of the influences on his work, we associate David Mamet with Pinter and Stanislavski. We don't tend to link him with the Marx Brothers, Gilbert and Sullivan and Monty Python. Yet these are the antic spirits suggested by Romance, a piece that opened in New York earlier this year and which now receives its British premiere in a deliciously loopy production by Lindsay Posner.
The famously butch author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross has sprung surprises on us before. From him, a drawing-room comedy about 19th-century lesbians seemed about as likely as a Noël Coward work-play set on an oil rig. Boston Marriage, though, had the feel, of a writer retaliating to criticism ("They say I can't do female characters. This'll show 'em!"). By contrast, if he tackles the untypical form of zany burlesque in the new play, you sense that it's not for self-referential reasons, but because he feels that this is the best way of capturing and guying the insane, explosive divisions of the modern world.
Romance creates madcap disorder in a courtroom during the low-profile trial of a chiropractor accused of attacking a chiropodist. The judge does not know the difference between the two professions, but then this eccentric older man - who oozes a vague, dotty sweetness of nature in John (Frasier) Mahoney's inspired performance - ends up not knowing his own name, as he gets progressively off his chump on hay-fever tablets.
The Episcopalian defence attorney (Colin Stinton) and his Jewish client (Nigel Lindsay) loathe each other and exchange furious racist jibes. "God forgive me, what have I done?" cries the latter. "I hired a goy lawyer. It's like going to a straight hairdresser." To which his counsel counters: "You people can't order a cheese sandwich without mentioning the Holocaust". That's one of the few printable taunts.
Meanwhile, the upstanding prosecutor (Nicholas Woodeson) is pursued by his aggrieved toyboy lover (Paul Ready) to the courtroom, where the judge is astounded to hear that Shakespeare may have been a "fag". In his view, though, that nation lacks proof, because we can't go back to the Elizabethan period to see if the Bard plucked his eyebrows and sometimes "forgot" to wear socks with his penny loafers.
At all events, the judge looks a lot cheerier when the toyboy ("My golly, you smell good") clambers on to his knee for comfort. This mild-seeming old cove keeps betraying outrageous bigotry and illiberalism. At least, though, it's even-handed. His attitude to Arabs may be suspect: they are a "fine, fine people", he insists, whose teachings proclaim a message of peace. So why, he wants to know, do they have their children sleep in tight garments, revealing their curves "to anybody with the least curiosity"? But he balances that with an equal-opportunities type of anti-Semitism. "Thank you, God. You do exist," he exclaims when he learns that he is reprieved from the secret shame of being Jewish, because his mother wasn't a Jew.
The trial takes place in the shadow of Middle East peace talks at the UN (the defence team attempts to get the trial suspended so that it can offer a new chiropractical solution to the problem: cricking the necks and realigning the spines of the participants).
Mamet's satiric premise is made needlessly explicit by the young gay man when he says, "How can you have peace in the Middle East when you can't have peace in your home?" It's a pretty obvious point. And there may be those who think that Romance is just an overblown sketch. But I found the piece oddly cathartic - its relentless, blackly exuberant (and often very funny) festival of political incorrectness exposes, in all their ridiculous irrationality, the hatreds and prejudices on which we fall back in times of insecurity. "Why are we doomed to endless strife?" the Jewish defendant asks. "Well," his defence lawyer replies, "everything was going fine till you killed Christ..."
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