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Chafing Political Sensibilities

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David Mamet, premiered at last at the theater he built, remains razor sharp

New York theatergoers are no strangers to the plays of David Mamet. The award-winning playwright, screenwriter, director, essayist, novelist and poet has had his works showcased all over the world since his play “Glengarry Glen Ross” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Mamet’s cutting, staccato signature language has altered the theatrical idiom, and his writings have continually thrown down the gauntlet on contemporary social mores.

This reputation precedes Mamet as the Atlantic Theater Company (ATC) unveils his newest play, “Romance.” Following 17 critically acclaimed revivals of his works, ATC, co-founded in 1983 by Mamet and William H. Macy, is hosting its first world-premiere by the playwright. The show employs ATC repertory cast and longtime Mamet collaborators Bob Balaban, Larry Bryggman, Jim Frangione, Steven Goldstein, Steven Hawley, Keith Nobbs and Christopher Evan Welch. Neil Pepe, the repertory’s artistic director, directs.

Set in a modern day courtroom, “Romance” is an explosive comedy exploring issues ranging from the American judicial system to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from fidelity to world peace. The intimate, renovated setting of the Atlantic Theater Company’s Chelsea space provides a poignant venue. Lighting designer James S. Ingalls and scenic designer Robert Brill collaborate to transform the cozy theater into a stark courtroom—a prime playground for the blurring of the emotional with the political.

Mamet’s typically jarring language takes a daring stab at the closely held tenets of Judaism, Christianity, the gay rights movement and other hot-button issues, all in the service of dispelling long-held myths. The profane and profound rants of a drug-addled judge (portrayed by Bryggman) often had the audience cracking up.

Some audience members were apparently not prepared for Mamet’s shock and awe campaign. Some theatergoers walked out at intermission, muttering that they couldn’t sit through the second act, world premiere or not.

If audiences prove less responsive to the second act, this is probably due to theatergoers’ numbed sensibilities, having already learned about the judge’s addiction to prescription painkillers, rendering predictable his frenzied outbursts. Allusions to the Roman Catholic pedophilia scandals have less bite as the dramatic comedy winds to its conclusion, and the tense revelatory moments about fidelity in relationships are undermined by stereotypically gay quips that cracked some patrons up, while forcing others to groan—so be warned. You may not laugh during all of Mamet’s latest play, but the parts you like will have you in tears.

While several theatergoers may left in a huff, the high demand for tickets has extended the show’s run by two weeks at its quaint Chelsea location.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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