Seated at a small table at Soho House, David Mamet is his book-jacket photo made flesh: downcast gaze, hair and beard cropped short, plain blazer pulled over a sensible cotton shirt with the second button from the top carelessly undone in the manner of a distracted genius, a decaf Earl Grey tea bag tucked in his jacket pocket. The signature beret and fat cigar are all that’s missing. Tucked under his elbow: today’s New York Times. On A1, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands—a prop for his latest shtick.
“Well, apparently, there’s been this conflict going on in the Middle East for some time; I think it’s even mentioned in the Bible,” he murmurs, coyly gazing down at the paper as he ambles into the setup. “Now, in all this time, nothing has been able to solve it.” Millennia passed and many died, but nothing changed, Mamet says—that is, until he wrote Romance, his new farce about “two fellas who figure out how to bring peace to the Middle East.”
“As soon as one did write such a play,” he says, “the world leaders of these two world factions decided to actually bring peace to the Middle East.” If their plan works, “my play isn’t topical anymore,” he gripes, “proving that old theater adage: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
The next night, Romance begins previews at the Atlantic Theater Company—Mamet’s first premiere at the theater he and William H. Macy founded twenty years ago. And Mamet has figured out a way to use his newspaper bit as a sight gag. Center stage, a weepy old judge (Larry Bryggman) thrusts that same Abbas-Sharon headline at the audience and gushes, “Peace! Is it not the theme of the week?” The judge wipes his eyes and blows his nose, dismissing differences of “religion, or skin color,” and pleads, poetically, “Can we not have peace? . . . Can’t we love each other?”
In another Pulitzer winner’s drama, audience members might nod approvingly—or roll their eyes. Here, the audience erupts into cackles: Knowing Mamet, things are about to get ugly. And soon enough, a Jewish chiropractor onstage is telling his Christian lawyer that he’d better fetch his son, lest he find him “limping when he comes home from Communion.” And the lawyer—or “child-molester thief goy bastard,” as the defendant calls him—responds by calling the chiropractor a “greasy, hook-nosed . . . rug merchant.” For starters.
Mamet’s ode to the peace process is part comedy-club pissing match and part South Park episode: an outrageous, hectic comedy composed in the hyperliterate profanity that made him a legend. Mamet haters will find plenty to despise. But for fans of Mamet at his most joyfully vicious, it’s everything you ever wanted: Mamet, South Side tough, plays the dozens; Mamet, Judaic scholar, mocks Middle East politics; Mamet, egghead comic, coins zingers; Mamet, master provocateur, delights in roasting sacred cows. A racist judge quotes Shylock, then Pharaoh, and wonders aloud if Shakespeare was gay. A fey security guard observes, “I never liked the World Trade Center: Too boxy.”
Over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, Mamet gives little indication that he’s concocted such a wild ride—only that he’s enjoyed the writing: “Endorphins,” he explains. Far from engaging in serious debate, he’s overflowing with puckish one-liners. “As they age, a lot of writers concern themselves with politics, or cross-dressing, or both. Pirandello, for instance.” (There’s no cross-dressing in Romance, but there is a lavender, leopard-print man-thong.) “It’s not that I like teasing the audience’s expectations,” he says. “I don’t want to bore myself.”