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A CurtainUp Review

Why did you go to law school if you don't want to lie? --- Defendant to his lawyer, during a between courtroom sessions consultation that blows the lid off the frustrated lawyer's heretofore contained anti-semitism.
 Larry Bryggman (rear), Christopher Evan Welch, Bob Balaba
Larry Bryggman (rear), Christopher Evan Welch, Bob Balaban
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein )
Don't let Robert Brill's sedate courtroom with its classic judge's bench backed by a portrait of George Washington fool you. David Mamet's courtroom is less a play about law and order than a burlesque of manic disorder, with everyone from judge to lawyers and defendants peppering their non sequiturs with insults ranging from the F word to outrageous religious slurs.

As the setting promises but doesn't deliver a realistic courtroom drama, neither is there anything resembling romance to support the title which begs a subtitle like Kafka Meets Monty Python. The whole idea for Mr. Mamet's main intent (besides his obvious intent to have fun and entertain) is to use a zany trial of a case that remains purposefully vague as a launch pad to skewer everything from our justice system to politics, homosexuality, pedophile priests and religious prejudice.

There is a message beneath all the laughs which might be summed up as follows: As long as we're unable to deal sensibly with our day-to-day disagreements all the peace conferences in the world aren't going to resolve the world's major messes. Thus, the court presided over by an addled judge (Larry Bryggman) becomes more madhouse than house of justice and reflects the mayhem that has brought a Mideast Peace conference to the unidentified city in which Romance unfolds.

The kooky doings begin with the Judge popping a dangerous number of allergy pills and interrupting the intense Prosecutor (Bob Balaban) of the never defined crime with his sneezes and ever more wacky personal asides. When the Judge calls for a recess, we move to a conference between the Jewish defendant (Steven Goldstein) and his very Christian lawyer (Christopher Evan Welch) which erupts into a devastatingly funny insult match bringing each man's ever-simmering bigotry to a full boil. From there it's on to watching the Prosecutor's practice summation deteriorate into a brouhaha with his boy toy, Bernard (Keith Nobbs -- the only character with a specific name. . .not to mention, a what goes around comes around nickname).

The play's high point is the scene after the somewhat superfluous intermission, when Shakespeare becomes part of the jabs at homosexuals and Jews. Mamet works a Bardian quote into the Judge's hilarious self description of himself as a man with feelings: "You think that I don't have feelings. Whad do you think, I'm made of, Curds and Whey? I'm flesh and blood, like any other man. Look, look, look, if you cut me, do I not bleed? Gimme that letter opener.".

By the time court's finally adjourned the variations on Mamet's politically incorrect interchanges the Judge has gone completely haywire. Bernard ends up sitting on his lap, a doctor (Jim Frangione) arrives to try trying him an injection and everyone except the poker-faced bailiff (Steven Hawley) confesses to something "unspeakable" -- the Defendant, a chiropractor, admits that he attacked a chiropodist and had sex with a goose; the pompous Defense Attorney owns up to cheating on his income tax; the Prosecutor confesses that he never took his bar exam; and the Judge says he is a Jew (though his belief in God is restored when the Jewish Defendant invalidates his confession with "you're not a Jew unless your mother was a Jew").

The Atlantic Theater's artistic director Neil Pepe keeps the screwball elements bouncing along with laugh a minute momentum and the cast fully captures the madcap spirit. Keith Nobbs' antics as the flamboyantly gay Bernard don't quite match the comedic brilliance of Larry Bryggman and Christopher Evan Welch but that may be due to the homosexual business being the least successful part of Mamet's script. Bryggman who just left one courtroom (as one of the jurors in Twelve Angry Men ( my review) is one of the New York theater's most regularly employed and most versatile actors. His nutty Judge may not maintain order in the court but it holds the comedy together.

This last week I've seen theatrical trials held in an abandoned European church (Pentecost), a Spanish monastery (The Controversy of Valladoid) and a corner of Purgatory (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot). With a jury notice tacked to my calendar I can only hope that if I'm selected for my own possible day or days in court, the experience will be as entertaining as Romance.

For a backgrounder on David Mamet and links to other of his plays reviewed at CurtainUp go here.


Written by David Mamet
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Bob Balaban (The Prosecutor), Steven Goldstein (The Defendant), Christopher Evan Welch (The Defense Attorney), Larry Bryggman (The Judge), Steven Hawley (The Bailiff), Keith Nobbs (Bernard) and Jim Frangione (The Doctor).
Set Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Sarah Edwards
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Sound Design Obadiah Eaves
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th Street (8/9thAvenues) (212) 239-6200.
From to 2/09/05 to /03/05--extended to 4/17/05 even before previews-- and to 5/01/05 after many positive reviews; opening 3/01/05.
Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 & 8 PM and Sundays at 3 & 7:30 PM.
Tickets: $55.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 2nd performance
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