For 30 years, David Mamet has busted his hump as a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, director and poet. He's won a Pulitzer, been nominated for two Oscars and was once the target of some unflattering buzz on The Simpsons (the latter, of course, is easily the most impressive measure of his success). When he started to write last year's Romance, he was ready to let loose in another direction, wondering if his trademark murky worldview (Glengarry Glen Ross) and flinty dialogue (Sexual Perversity in Chicago) might find some new digs inside political farce.
This man nails just about everything he shoots at, and with Romance, he shows why. The package may be wrapped in a different pattern, but that telltale arid wit and staccato cadence churn inside it. It takes a second to adjust to the madcap, un-Mamet environment, and ever so minimally, this San Diego Repertory Theatre piece threatens to slip into burlesque, farce's Neanderthal cousin-but truth be told, the Rep is folding its 30th season with a pretty funny (sometimes riotously funny) entry.
There's nothing romantic about Romance, unless religious bigotry, the dangers of traditional medicine, closet homosexuality, the fractured American judicial system and the daily crises in the war-torn Middle East pluck your heartstrings. Mamet has a thing or two to say about all of 'em, and he kicks it off at a cantankerous chiropractor's civil trial. We don't know what the Defendant (Steve Lipinsky) is charged with, but that's not important. The proceeding (colored by Nick Fouch's pristine courtroom set and Jeannie Galioto's utilitarian costumes) is only a metaphor for America's institutions and the match they're about to meet.
The Defendant thinks he's found the answer to the Mid-East mess, and he's anxious to hawk the goods at a peace conference across the street. Before he gets a chance, we meet his out-of-it Judge (Peter Van Norden), who can't remember if he's taken his allergy pills, let alone whether it's day or night; a Bailiff (Ruff Yeager) and a Prosecutor (Matthew Henerson) who declare that Shakespeare "was a Jew and a fag"; boy-toy Bernard (John Altieri), who can't abide the smell of burned pot roast; a Doctor (Craig Huisenga) blinded by the AMA's cultist mantras; and the sanctimonious Defense Attorney (Steve Gunderson), a Roman Catholic suburbanite who faces the most daunting assignment of all-"getting the priest's dick outta [my] son's ass."
The two-stanza show (which probably would have been a little better as a one-act) quickly dissolves into farce's obligatory cacophony, and everybody plays quite well to the material's stock value. Beyond that, two things set the piece apart from the norm. Director Sam Woodhouse does an awfully good job at controlling the chaos. He rides out the few patches of badly simplistic dialogue, and he knows exactly when to pull his people back from the edge of the vaudevillian cliff. Mamet's steady hand, though, is far more crucial. He manipulates the humor beautifully while hammering home the core tenet in all his work: The world is in the dumper to hell and gone, and it's without hope unless it undertakes some exhaustive personal inventories and transforms itself accordingly.
Sam sounded tired when he pep-talked the peeps on opening night-but, hey, after 30 seasons, you'd be ready for a short nap, too. This year had its moments, like 'da Kink in My Hair, A Christmas Carol, Intimate Apparel and, now, Romance. That's a fair crop of entries to build on as the Rep busies itself with plans for 2006-07. And the Lyceum space's awesome renovation doesn't hurt a thing.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of April 28. Romance runs through May 21 at the Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $27-$42. 619-584-1000.
Anton Chekhov's plays feature lots of ponderous reflection, which means they aren't for everybody-and sometimes, that includes the actors. With its production of his The Cherry Orchard, San Diego State University's Department of Theatre, Television and Film has bitten off more than it can chew, as Chekhov's profound grasp of czarist Russian malaise simply outstrips the acumen of this mostly young cast.
But directors Randy Reinholz and Jeff Morrison have picked a good metaphor for the trials of the U.S. middle class. The play centers on family matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya (faculty member Anne-Charlotte Harvey), who stands to lose her estate unless she levels her beloved cherry trees to make room for luxury housing. Painful choices like that are made every day in America, often spurred by what one character calls "coarse, unintelligent and profoundly unhappy" people.
He could have been talking about the Bahamian sea cow sitting next to me-the one who ate, drank and checked her cell phone through half of the first act. Live performance is virtually the last bastion of patron etiquette in this rapidly unraveling culture. Accordingly, this imbecile, clearly within the performers' earshot, should have either waited until intermission to chow down or stayed the fuck away from the theater. The up side is that she didn't come back after the break.
The Cherry Orchard runs through May 7 at SDSU's Don Powell Theatre, 5555 Campanile Drive. $12-$15. 619-594-6884.
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