In the 19th century, male intimacy was different, as Lincoln scholars have lately been telling us: Pairs of male friends walked hand in hand without anyone assuming that their friendship might have a sexual component; male strangers shared beds without anyone raising an eyebrow. Then came Freud, and the 20th century’s new consciousness of the unconscious, and male bonding, like every other human relationship, suddenly became suspect. Machismo, over the century, had to harden into something almost psychopathic to prove that it didn’t have a soft underside. In the process, ironically, it became something very nearly duplicating its opposite: Poets knew long before Freud that extreme desire and extreme hate are closely akin.
As if to prove the point, David Mamet, the American theater’s ranking poet of dramatized machismo, has written a farce with an all-male cast, Romance, that suggests a desire to turn Glengarry Glen Ross upside down and give it a sound spanking. Practically everything in its 90 minutes of disconcerting lunacy is topsy-turvy: How can a farce be a romance? Farce is a form that demands constant physical action, a realm in which most of Mamet’s plays are famously constrained except at their climactic moments; much of the fun of Romance comes from its being a kind of stop-motion farce, in which the energy of the rapid-fire dialogue replaces the usual farce energy of door slammings and hidings in closets.
The scene is a courtroom and the defendant is a Jew, which, if the play were serious, would suggest something closer to Kafka than to Feydeau. What Mamet’s results imply is that the two great writers, both positioned on that pivot point between the 19th and 20th centuries, were closer in vision than anyone previously realized, that the unmitigated despair in Kafka could find mitigation in the escalating shenanigans of Feydeau; the latter’s characters often seem to be pursued by a malign fate that somehow leaves them, shaken but uninjured, back where they were when the chase began. In Mamet’s madcap courtroom, we never learn what the charge is; on the basis of the evidence presented, the defendant—who never answers a question straightforwardly but has insisted on taking the stand against his (non-Jewish) lawyer’s advice—seems guilty as hell. Rather than exculpate him, Mamet’s tactic is to show that everyone else in the room is equally guilty: The defense attorney is an anti-Semitic bigot who, in conference, trades faith-based slurs with his client; the prosecutor’s exceptional vindictiveness comes from his awareness that his home life is going to hell; the judge is a pill-popping allergy patient prone to severe mental distraction; even the bailiff’s secret affairs get dragged into the case.
Much of this, as staged by Neil Pepe, is extremely funny, and the mad capstone of the comedy is Larry Bryggman’s performance as the Judge. People who’ve only seen Bryggman in more somber roles, like Henry VI or the father in Proof, will be startled by the deranged comic streak this most solid of actors displays here, in full lunatic glory. With his hair combed down in what looks like an acrylic Louise Brooks bob, he appears to have been possessed by the dybbuk of Sid Caesar, switching from vacant stares and moony rhapsodizing to tyrannical yelps and stone-grim glares with a speed and naturalness that are purely breathtaking. Nearly as funny is Keith Nobbs, as the prosecutor’s unhappy domestic partner, who can mix a spicy paste of hilarity and pathos out of anything from love betrayed to the most facile of Mamet’s gags, a misplaced contact lens. The others are excellent, particularly Steven Goldstein as the Defendant and Bob Balaban as the Prosecutor, but watching Bryggman sprawl across the judge’s bench in his cross-eyed quest for more allergy pills, or Nobbs flaying himself with guilt over a burnt roast, produces the kind of laughter that makes you think the old days, when comic acting of this quality was Broadway’s normal order of business, might be coming back.
The difference is that Mamet has, as it were, reharmonized the old frivolity so that its tune seems contemporary and discordant, like a folk song “realized” by a modernist composer. Outside the courtroom, the city is hosting an Arab-Israeli peace conference. As the trial’s events get wackier, Mamet shoots a barrage of contradictory ideas through the implied comparison between the little squabble onstage and the huge international agony being dealt with outside: that ethnicity is irrevocable and war inevitable; that, conversely, ethnicity (like sexual preference) is labile and war only a heap of male foolishness; that men are better off accepting their inherent queerness; that, on the contrary, gay and straight, like Jew and Gentile, have equal propensities for betrayal, dishonesty, and victimization. And maybe the violent postures are just a question of posture: The defendant, a chiropractor, thinks he can solve the Mideast crisis by making both parties stand up straight. The collision of the dark material, the terse Mamet style, and the loud, coarse laughs the action evokes makes the play at once easy to enjoy and bothersome to digest: To write a farce that bears thinking about is a guaranteed way to get on reviewers’ nerves. On the other hand, our situation may be such that there is no other way to write one today. Television has institutionalized the crude and one-dimensional to a degree that makes popular entertainment more than slightly sickening; if adding intelligence to low comedy means the laughter sticks in the throat somewhat, that’s still probably the better option.