'The Anarchist': Theater Review

Felicity Huffman and Rebecca Pidgeon in 'The Anarchist'
Fine acting and efficient direction aren't enough to help Mamet's demanding dialectic pay off

After bombing on Broadway, David Mamet's problematic two-hander lands on Hollywood's Theatre Row, starring Felicity Huffman and Rebecca Pidgeon.

“Well, they played the hell out of it,” David Mamet was overheard saying on opening night of The Anarchist, his two-hander starring his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, opposite Felicity Huffman, currently running at Hollywood’s Theatre Row. Both actors are frequent Mamet collaborators, having previously teamed on his 1999 play Boston Marriage, another two-hander conceived in part to silence critics who say he has difficulty writing women. The new production features outstanding performances and direction, but cannot overcome the considerable demands of a play that leaves its audience unrewarded.

The 99-seat Theatre Asylum may seem like an odd choice for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who goes from Broadway to black box with a pedigreed cast. But not when you consider that the original 2012 production, directed by Mamet and starring Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, opened to scathing reviews and closed after only 17 performances.

In the play's Los Angeles premiere, the audience is almost in the lap of Pidgeon and Huffman as they take their places in a cramped, institutional office — designer Michael Fitzgerald’s convincing set includes a desk, two chairs, wooden and concrete walls, and glass panes looking out onto more concrete. It is a sometime place of business for parole board member Ann (Pidgeon), who is to decide if Cathy (Huffman), a Weather Underground-like radical incarcerated for killing a cop in a robbery, should be released after serving 35 years.

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Cathy is an intellectual from a prominent Jewish family who, while in prison, has converted to Christianity. She believes she is redeemed and is seeking clemency to visit her dying father. Knowing Ann is leaving her position, Cathy hopes Ann’s parting grace shot will be to grant her wish. Instead, Ann is set on ferreting out the whereabouts of Cathy’s collaborator and lover, Althea, who has evaded capture.

Mamet has said dialogue is easier to write than plot, and The Anarchist more than makes his case. Although the 70-minute dialectic is deliberately less about plot than ideas, the playwright sacrifices other elements like dramatic development and human emotion in the process. He has compared the play to a Talmudic argument.

Ann and Cathy grapple with ideas concerning the individual’s relationship to society, the nature of redemption and the qualities of mercy. Ann is steadfast in her belief that people never really change and that "kindness to the wicked is cruelty to the just," which makes a vice out of mercy. There is a dash of sexual tension when Cathy suggests Ann is a repressed lesbian who covets Cathy’s past relationship with Althea, an odd element only in that this is Mamet's second two-female-character play to feature lesbians.

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Both actors do indeed “play the hell out of it,” with Pidgeon calling it the toughest play she’s ever tackled. And while they speak in the language of scholars (Talmudic or otherwise), and the complexity of their arguments attests to Mamet’s intelligence, his characters require the audience's strictest attention just to follow the text, let alone understand the subtext.

Costume designer Courtney Hoffman puts Pidgeon in a reserved suit jacket and skirt, a button-down look that’s a little too on the nose. And while Pidgeon brings a palpable surface tension to Ann, the character’s tough-on-the-outside, hurt-and-lonely-on-the-inside dynamic is too pat. The less empathetic of the two, Ann is occasionally reduced to a sounding board for the play’s more compelling character, Cathy.

Like Pidgeon, Huffman’s challenge is not only to carve a clean path through Mamet’s dense discourses, but to bring some humanity to the proceedings. Huffman adds blood to an otherwise bloodless play, but one might expect more emotion in a drama about a woman pleading for her freedom.

Director Marja-Lewis Ryan maintains a brisk rhythm that is essential to keeping the audience engaged. Her input is nearly invisible, and given the physical restrictions of the space — as well as the rhetorical restrictions of the material — she impressively maintains a nimble production. In the end, Mamet gives his audience plenty to consider, but The Anarchist, with its underwhelming conclusion and under-baked characters, feels more like an etude than a fully developed composition.

Cast: Felicity Huffman, Rebecca Pidgeon
Director: Marja-Lewis Ryan
Playwright: David Mamet
Set designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Lighting designer: Karyn Lawrence
Presented by Emily Peck and Marja-Lewis Ryan

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