NEW YORK — Some actors are more commanding than others when grappling with the exacting rhythms of David Mamet’s clipped dialogue. Patti LuPone, who collaborated with the playwright on The Old Neighborhood in 1997 and in a number of other plays and films, is a natural. Debra Winger, making her Broadway debut, is still finding her way. But the far greater problem with The Anarchist is that this aridly intellectual two-hander — which clocks in at a mere 65 minutes and has been loftily described by Mamet as “a Talmudic argument” — is desiccated, dull and virtually without drama.
Delving with academic focus into polemical questions of crime and punishment, faith and atonement, reason and belief, mercy and rehabilitation, this is more of an audio-pamphlet than a play with its own life force. Marquee names aside, it’s a poor fit for Broadway and a $130 top ticket.
Staged on designer Patrizia von Brandenstein’s grim representation of an institutional office and directed by Mamet with methodical blocking but not much vigor, The Anarchist might have built some intensity in a more intimate Off Broadway space. But in this world-premiere production, it’s just a stream of static talk with a small crescendo of confrontational sparks at the end.
LuPone plays Cathy, an aging woman who has served 35 years of a life sentence in prison for the killing of two police officers during a botched robbery. Her crime was carried out under the banner of an unnamed anti-government radical extremist group that resembles the Weather Underground. The daughter of a wealthy and prominent Jewish family, she has converted to Christianity and is pushing for early release on compassionate grounds given that her father is dying. Cathy claims that she wants to see her estranged parent to allow him to forgive her, and thus, to “experience grace.”
Winger’s character, Ann, is a case officer tasked with assessing Cathy’s eligibility for parole. The text indicates that these meetings have taken place periodically over many years, with the victims’ families waiting in an anteroom and lobbying forcefully to keep Cathy behind bars. Ann is moving on from the state-appointed position, which means there’s a lot riding on this particular interview. But neither the characterizations nor the meticulously honed dialogue carry much sense of a palpable history between these two women.
That’s partly because of the imbalance separating the two performers. “I am an old woman,” says Cathy. “I no longer offer a threat.” Threat or not, LuPone handles her part of the exchanges like a cocked pistol, whether it’s a terse retort or a wordy, impassioned argumentation. But Winger adopts the affectless style common to many Mamet interpreters, resulting in a disappointingly monotone performance. Even when she’s needling Cathy or having her professional ethics and impartiality called into question, Ann is a flat presence.
The case officer doubts the sincerity of Cathy’s religious conversion, threatening to destroy the manuscript of a nonfiction book she has written about her path to faith. But the prisoner vehemently defends her position, getting into lengthy — and uninvolving — theological, philosophical and semantic debates about belief and certainty.
On the opposite side of the clash, Ann accuses Cathy of withholding information on the whereabouts of a woman who was her lover and an accomplice in the robbery incident, though the prisoner denies such knowledge. Cathy insists that personal animosity factors into Ann’s agenda. She maintains that the frustrated state agent is envious of her relationships with women, and that Ann is leaving the job with the bitter awareness of having achieved nothing during her time there.
Mamet and von Brandenstein stack the deck regarding the notion of Ann’s repressed sexuality and her attraction to Cathy by putting her in business attire and a tight hairdo that make her a hackneyed stereotype of lesbian severity.
A note of tension belatedly creeps into the interview around the one-hour mark as Ann’s dogged refusal to back down forces Cathy to make compromising statements. And there are some potentially interesting points raised concerning our attitudes toward convicted terrorists and whether those views even allow for clemency. The fact that the once-infamous Cathy is now all but forgotten by the public makes that question resonate more.
But this is a logorrheic, resolutely untheatrical play that’s almost stubbornly perverse in its refusal to provide any emotional payoff. It’s also a sad waste of the talents of two gifted actors who should have generated fireworks together.
Venue: Golden Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 17)
Cast: Patti LuPone, Debra Winger
Director-Playwright: David Mamet
Set and costume designer: Patrizia von Brandenstein
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Howard & Janet Kagan, Catherine Schreiber, Jam Theatricals, Luigi & Rose Caiola, Gutterman Chernoff MXKC, Kit Seidel, Broadway Across America, Amy & Phil Mickelson, James Fuld Jr., Carlos Arana/Bard Theatricals, Will Trice