It's asinine to think any human being can truly know the heart or mind of any other, but I've got a theory about David Mamet anyway: He thinks all human beings are deaf-mutes.
At first glance, Romance appears to be a play about peace; either that or it's about nothing. Although the characters talk about peace peace in the Middle East, peace in their homes they might as well be talking about the weather. Romance is a farce, a fizz-pop brain-candy concoction, and no matter how weighty its subject matter becomes politics, child molestation its characters are unable to respond. In the last act, when two characters claim to have the solution to Islamic-Judaic enmity, everyone else onstage becomes suddenly obsessed with the question of William Shakespeare's ethnic origin. In Romance all topics are created equal, and none of them counts for much. Which makes me think Romance is, on second thought, a play about communication.
This show is enormously funny, but the humor would fall flat if an audience didn't recognize itself in the flailing-about of its characters. Though primarily set in a courtroom, the play deals only tangentially with justice, and despite its title, Romance has even less to do with love. Both of these things are pursued scarcely an actor sets foot onstage without seeking one ideal or both but the characters' lives, personalities, and interests are all too circumscribed to allow them to reach out to one another, to work toward some resolution. This gives the play the appearance of stasis, and stasis is boring. But Romance is not boring because, on some level, audiences know this stasis intimately and can greet it in the full, embarrassed flush of recognition.
Actor Antonio Amadeo is the defendant (characters don't have names). While the judge pops pills on the bench, the prosecutor (Joe Kimble) tries in vain to get Amadeo to give up the goods. He waves a piece of paper under Amadeo's nose: Is this your signature? Another piece of paper: Is this a drawing of a rabbit? These are basic questions, and Amadeo's bland effusiveness would make Bill Clinton proud, if Bill were paying attention. But he isn't, and neither is anybody else; the proceedings are rote, dull. Nobody is happy to be here. The defense attorney looks grumpy, the judge is on the nod, the bailiff is contemplating his navel; the action is all in Kimble's face, which slowly reddens as it becomes clear his interrogation is not only a failure but also utterly irrelevant. The judge isn't listening, Amadeo isn't talking, and Kimble who takes pride in his work rapidly transitions from righteous indignation to outright anger to terrible shame.
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Then the judge whom David Kwiat plays like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, if Lloyd's brain had spent twenty years sizzling on an amphetamine skillet launches into a confused tirade about the beauty of the parade occurring that very moment on the street outside the courthouse. It's a peace parade, because the leaders of Israel and Palestine are in town for a meeting, and the judge is so overcome with pleasure, so ennobled by the thought of global reconciliation, that he cannot contain himself. Maybe he says transcendent things, maybe he's out of his mind the people in the courtroom can't tell the difference. They simply have to say, "Yes, Your Honor!" and "Most definitely, Your Honor!" every time he pauses for breath.
And so it goes, scene after scene: Some tangible end is presented before the action goes crashing through the narrative looking glass, as characters blindly pursue their own interests without regard for set or setting. In the second scene, the defendant's attempt to fire his attorney played by Bill Schwartz, so tense from submerged rage that he seems ready to spontaneously combust from curtain up till curtain call devolves into an impossibly vulgar shouting match about dirty Jews and child-molesting priests. The scene never really ends because it never really begins: These men have come to this place to wrangle with the legal system, to make decisions, but progress is impossible because they're so infuriated by each other's existence. There's no obvious reason for it the invective they spew as they stand there, squint-eyed and square-shouldered, is all out of proportion to anything they might have done wrong. It's just that they've decided, somehow, that over-the-top cruelty is the only possible response to lives as confusing as theirs. So they sling insult after insult, extending the moment well beyond the point where real-life combatants would have reached for a gun or the nearest blunt object, attaining Wagnerian crescendos of profanity that make hip, mixed-demo GableStage-goers gasp. And it's horrible.
It's also extremely amusing; you'll be laughing all the way to the confessional. But any cast of characters too mired in directionless acrimony to complete a thought is going to have difficulty weaving a coherent story. Instead the actors bounce off of each other, which would be neither fun nor enlightening if director Joseph Adler hadn't turned these people into cartoons. Their performances are archetypal and massively overblown, rendering their foibles and psychoses so huge that nothing is hidden. This doesn't make anybody look good while some plays feature "warts and all" portrayals, Romance is a living argument for the "warts is all" approach but it also makes the reeling disasters onstage perversely sympathetic. Matthew Glass plays the prosecutor's boyfriend as such a desperate, lovelorn babe-in-the-woods that any theatergoer with a heart would want to adopt him. In real life, you'd probably hate the guy if you deigned to notice him at all.
And that subversion of ordinary judgment is what's interesting about the play's courtroom setting. You don't find out till the very end the reason for the defendant's trial, and when you do, it barely matters. No matter what he has done, he's no worse than anybody present: They're all pitiable beasts, innocent as lambs and guilty as sin. Mamet's big idea is that those who listen as intently as they judge might learn to perceive both at the same time.
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