ROMANCE by David Mamet, directed by Irene Poole, with Don Allison, Stewart Arnott, Paul Eves, David Ferry, Brendan Gall, Steven Manuel and Christopher Stanton. Presented by Pilot Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, May 25), opens Monday (May 29) and runs to June 10, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $20-$25. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
David Mamet is famous for his succinct dialogue, specific rhythms and driven characters. Often imitated, his style has been praised for being both vividly theatrical and true to natural speech. But probably never, until now, has anyone likened a Mamet script to something by the Marx Brothers.
Yet that's the feeling audiences will have by the end of Romance, which is set largely in a courtroom where two combating trial attorneys try to get the truth or a version of it from an unwilling defendant.
In the same city, an international peace conference is tackling an equally thorny issue, the resolution of a conflict in the Middle East. Mamet brings these parallel battles together, peppering them with some very funny surprises.
"It's a comedy that's terrifying, but not in the sense of a black comedy," says actor Paul Eves, who saw its premiere last year in New York. "Instead, it's incendiary, a rare piece that's provocative, silly, smart and fun at the same time."
Eves has pulled various other theatre artists into this production, people he's worked with over the past few years. You could play a theatrical game of six degrees of separation with these names; most of the seven actors and director Irene Poole collaborated on productions of Lobby Hero, Much Ado About Nothing, Hockey Mom Hockey Dad, The Taming Of The Shrew and Escape From Happiness.
The last, with Poole and David Ferry, ran during most of the rehearsals for Romance, keeping first-time director Poole really busy.
"But because she's a neophyte director, Irene's done just what you have to do with Mamet keep it simple," offers Eves. "Directors with lots of experience often impose a style or a process on the rehearsal period. Instead, we're committed to letting each scene inform the play and keeping any junk out of it.
"Doing Mamet shouldn't be an archaeological dig. You don't go looking for something that was seeded two episodes ago and have it blossom in what you're playing now."
There's no subtext in a Mamet play. His characters live very much in the present; they have an immediate objective and go for it.
"It's like listening to a piece of music," adds Poole. "If all the elements fit, there's a harmony. Your ear knows it's right. Even if you're not musically trained, you can hear a discord if something's off."
But it's not just the style that has to be right. In this play, Mamet is an equal-opportunity offender, taking on Jews, Christians, gays, lawyers even the Bard.
"He really doesn't touch women," offers the director, "but this world is run by men, and look at the mess they make."
The two artists feel that Mamet is taking on Bush's America. Eves suggests that the play's emblematic phrase is "Fuck you, how can you have world peace when you don't have peace at home?"
It's always tricky to pull off Mamet's dialogue, with its specific pauses, shifts and overlaps.
"Usually, an actor has to listen and react to what's said," declares Poole. "Here, the exercise is one of listening but not hearing, not responding logically.
"It's quite a challenge to memorize. You have to learn the rhythms as well as the words."
Good thing the cast has an established camaraderie and therefore a shorthand in working on the material.
And has that connection helped Poole on her first directing gig?
"I guess it has," she smiles. "It's been exhausting, but doing double duty has been useful. I've followed my gut and not second-guessed myself. I haven't had time to think about our choices; I just keep myself focused on the guys and telling Mamet's story."