Footlight Players

Jan. 25-27 at 10:30 p.m.


Footlight Players Theatre

20 Queen St.


When the Footlight Players tested a “curtain warmer” comedy on the audience of Arsenic & Old Lace late last year, the response was mixed. Folks expecting a venerable farce also got a new, hip, high-speed quickie called i am drinking the goddamn sun by New York playwright Brian P.J. Cronin; reactions ranged from gentle amusement to total bemusement.

In contrast, there’s no room for reasonable doubt about the intended audience of Romance, the first official entry in the Players’ “Salt & Battery” offshoot series. A late-night performance time, discounted ticket prices, the film farce-style pre-show music, and the choice of writer (David Mamet in ultra-playful form) all cry out for a full house of broad-minded punters. When a show is this funny, the place deserves to be filled to the gills with laughter.

Romance points up the absurdities of the legal system with a series of sharply focused confrontations and character-driven gags. Its doped-up driving force is a judge who’s suffering from hay fever, popping antihistamine tablets like they’re M&Ms. The more he takes, the more he loses track — and control — of proceedings.

It’s never clear whether the judge’s addled state is a good or bad thing for the defendant, a dissembling chiropractor. In fact, the whole trial isn’t all that important. It’s just an excuse for Mamet to place his abrasive characters in a high-pressure situation and set the sparks flying.

In the court of King Mamet, the judge can pass any sentence he fancies, the lawyers present more f-bombs than affidavits, the bailiff calls his own adjournments and confesses to screwing a goose, the Jewish defendant vows to bring peace to the Middle East but is barely aided by his Christian lawyer, and the prosecutor is nagged by his barely dressed boyfriend Bernard, who is nicknamed “Buns.” By the end of Scene Three, the audience will know those buns all too well.

Karl Bunch handles the lead role of the dotty presiding judge well. The actor’s sense of pace and comic timing have been honed over 41 Footlight shows, and he needs them to keep Romance aloft. As the different pills take their effect, he switches from happy, peace-loving evangelism to self-doubting inquisitor in the space of minutes. He’s a joy to watch, with or without his clothes on, although his wife will surely be washing his mouth out with soap after every performance.

In a 2003 stage adaptation of Breaker Morant, Chris Sheets played a kick-ass prosecutor who successfully had half the show’s characters shot, jailed, or thrown out of court. Here he shows a gentler side, playing a slightly more reasonable prosecutor who is the most sincerely romantic guy in the whole play. His boyfriend Bernard may complain that he’s neglected, but the couple share a couple of brief moments of genuine affection. Ryan Rensberry is totally committed to the camp character of Bernard, and Kyle Mims displays all the sense of urgency and impact that was lacking in his direction of last year’s Rebecca. David Barr and Mike Ferrer, fresh from Footlight’s I’m Gonna Kill the President, add memorably knowing touches to their simpler roles as the defendant and a doctor. Bob Sharbaugh also provides some very funny reactions as Jimmy, the soft-spoken bailiff.

Director Don Brandenburg keeps the play moving rapidly, and only one scene — a racist slanging match between the defendant and his attorney — suffers from uninspired blocking. There’s little time for the audience to take a breath and question the lack of narrative or deep character development. Brandenburg recognizes that Mamet is celebrating traditional farce, no frills attached.

At 10 bucks a throw, this show is a bargain for anyone not offended by invective, gay or racist stereotypes, or the notion that “Shakespeare must have been a Jewish fag, because no Christian could write that good.” It’s a bold and effective way to launch “Salt & Battery,” which returns in April with CofC theatre major Michael Smallwood’s Talk.

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