When actor Steven Goldstein started reading David Mamet's new play, "Romance," he was thrown by the relentlessly foul language.
"I read it, and I thought, 'Ohmygod,'" said the actor who plays the role of a defendant in a court case. "At first, I didn't know what to make of it. I thought people are going to be in hysterics, or they are going to be offended."
Reviews of the play, which ran in New York for two and a half months, generally appreciated the humor in the obscenity and racial-epithet laden play. And many in the audience laughed raucously, although others exited the theater by the second act.
Now, L.A. theater patrons will be able to judge for themselves. The play opened this week at the Mark Taper Forum.
The courtroom farce manages to hurl insults at Jews, Arabs, Christians, homosexuals and liberals. The plot, which lurches violently in unforeseen directions, is loosely held together with stream-of-consciousness rants against the above-mentioned groups -- and more.
The plot revolves around a chiropractor on trial for some undefined crime for which he may or may not be guilty. The judge is a brain-addled pill-popper, whose mental state is far from the trial at hand.
How offensive do things get? Well, in the second scene, the defense attorney (played by Ed Begley Jr.) reveals his anti-Semitism while yelling at his client, the defendant. Then, he sort of apologizes, explaining that he's upset because he could be late for taking his son to the "church youth hockey game."
The defendant pretends to accept the apology, and then volleys back with an explicit remark about the sex act the priest will be inflicting on the boy if the father arrives late. And that's one of the tamer exchanges.
The two reach a truce when the defendant claims that he has a way to solve the Middle East crisis, and the defense attorney agrees to help him. As it happens, peace talks are taking place in that very city. The two return to the trial, seeking a stay so they can intervene in world events. The denouement has all the characters yelling at each other.
The play says something about American hubris. That is, how is it possible for the United States to be the big peacemaker in the world when its own citizens are so beset with prejudice and anger?
"Mamet wrote this at the height of the Iraq War," said Goldstein, who has acted in many Mamet productions, including the films "The Untouchables" and "The House of Games."
"I think he was saying, 'What right do we have to try to solve the problem in Iraq, when we can't even solve the problems here?'" the actor said. "I think that is a very Jewish thing -- shalom bayit -- peace begins at home. It is a truth that can be brought into comedy, because comedy teaches us better in the long run."
Goldstein, an observant Jew, has taken an apartment downtown so that he can walk to the theater when he is performing on Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, his understudy will take his part.
Theatrically, Goldstein is a devoted Mamet acolyte who calls the playwright his "rebbe." He took the part because "it is a very true and funny piece that allows us as a community to come to an understanding of ourselves."
"Basically, I would take anything that Mamet wrote, and I feel honored that he considered me for this," Goldstein said. "But because he wrote it, I trusted it more."
Begley expressed a similar confidence in Mamet. To his mind, "Romance" uses humor to make the audience uncomfortable about its latent bigotry.
"David Mamet allows us to recognize that racism is real; that anti-Semitism is real," Begley said. "It is cathartic to bring some of these words out, which people are probably uttering in country clubs and board rooms. And those people aren't saying them to take the weight off them, but to give them additional weight.
"To bring it out in the daylight and laugh at people who have those kinds of prejudices, that is kind of healthy," he said, adding that in the hands of a lesser playwright, such humor would fall flat.
"There is a danger to trifle with these things," Begley continued. "If you have someone who doesn't have the skills of David Mamet, that can be dangerous. I think 'Romance' is very funny. There is a great relief in laughter. It is quite an elixir, and it can also be quite healing."
"Romance" is playing at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets go to www.centertheatergroup.org.
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