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Timothy Babcock as Bernard (left), with his lover, the Prosecutor (Stephen Russell, right).
Timothy Babcock as Bernard (left), with his lover, the Prosecutor (Stephen Russell, right). (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre)

This 'Romance' has a nasty side

WELLFLEET -- Does a volley of vicious anti-Semitic and anti-Christian insults strike you as a laugh riot? In David Mamet's ``Romance" -- a 2005 courtroom farce getting its New England premiere at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater -- you have to take it on faith that the playwright's intent is purgative: Get that garbage out in the open. Moreover, the exchange in question, between a defendant who's Jewish and his attorney, an Episcopalian (``What the [expletive] is that, a Catholic with a Volvo?"), is a turning point in the hyperkinetic plot.

It's during this typically Mametian, expletive-laced skirmish that the defendant (wily John Shuman ), a chiropractor up on charges of some unspecified malfeasance, comes up with a plan for achieving peace in the Middle East. An Israeli-Arab summit meeting has been called across town, and he thinks that with some deft spinal adjustments of the key players, he could alter the course of history. His disaffected attorney (Jon Kooi ) is sufficiently impressed by the plan to petition to have the proceedings suspended.

Not that they're really proceeding anywhere, with this judge (Garry Mitchell), a jovial old fool and poster child for ADD, presiding. The judge has a definite problem staying on task. Zonked on antihistamines, he's easily sidetracked by such questions as whether Shakespeare was Jewish or gay or both. His drug-addled ramblings reveal a deep-seated good-old-boy bigotry (``God in his mercy assigned one race to rule and one to work"), as well as some past sins that really aren't fodder for comedy. It's not enough to have the defendant make a jaw-droppingly scurrilous -- if substantiated -- remark about pedophilia among Catholic clergy; Mamet pushes the envelope by attempting to make a joke of incestuous child abuse.

Mamet's model for this comedic exercise would seem to be Joe Orton, who loved to strip away the trappings of authority and propriety. Mamet's approach to slapstick is more verbal, and amid the heated arguments, it's the actors who remain comparatively subdued who keep the fracas interesting.

Playing Bernard, the homebody boy toy of the closeted prosecutor (Stephen Russell), Timothy Babcock easily could have camped it up; it's a role that would admit plenty of pouty flouncing. Yet Babcock, sporting a thong and apron, plays it warm and authentic: He's an Everyman frustrated by an unfulfilling relationship, and his quest for appreciation -- all the more hilarious as underplayed -- is easy to relate to. Similarly, Shawn O'Neil brings a sly craftiness to the small part of the close-mouthed, seemingly oblivious bailiff. And Mitchell, as the tousled, out-to-lunch judge, is pretty much adorable in W. C. Fields mode.

The overall geniality of this endeavor, however, doesn't fully warrant the airing of such hideous cultural stereotypes. Call us unenlightened or unhip, but such hate-mongering -- even supposedly in jest -- just isn't amusing.

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