'The Penitent': Theater Review

Doug Hamilton
Chris Bauer and Rebecca Pidgeon in 'The Penitent'
Dead playwright walking.

A psychiatrist's personal and professional life becomes threatened when he refuses to testify on behalf of a former patient in David Mamet's new drama.

Not since Tennessee Williams has a once-celebrated playwright’s later output plummeted so drastically in quality as David Mamet’s. The author of such brilliant early works as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross has produced a steady stream of misfires in recent years, the most recent example being last season’s Broadway effort China Doll, which failed even in its minor goal of being a flashy star vehicle for Al Pacino. Now comes The Penitent, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company; it turns out to be yet another clunker.

This one, at least, is a play of ideas, although once again, as in such recent works as Race and The Anarchist, provocative themes take precedence over drama. The play revolves around Charles (Chris Bauer of HBO’s True Blood), a psychiatrist whose personal and professional life becomes jeopardized when he refuses to testify in defense of a former patient who killed 10 people in a shooting spree.

This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, except that the young man in question accuses Charles, who has recently found religion, of not testifying on his behalf because he’s prejudiced against gay people. It doesn’t help the shrink’s case that a newspaper recently misprinted the title of an article he wrote years earlier, calling it “Homosexuality as an Aberration” instead of “Homosexuality as an Adaptation.”

The play consists of talky, emotionally charged exchanges between the psychiatrist and his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon), who doesn’t cotton to her husband’s religious conversion; his lawyer and friend Richard (Jordan Lage), who urges him to reconsider his decision for the sake of his career; and a deposing attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), who quizzes him about his belief in the lessons of the Bible.

Whereas Mamet’s stylized dialogue once crackled with electricity and tension, it now plays as hopelessly stilted. The mannerisms, such as the repetition of phrases and the finishing of others’ sentences, have become irritating, and the characters come across less as real people than mouthpieces for the ideas the playwright wants to express. It’s also not too big a leap to think that this work’s central character, who suffers mightily because of his convictions, represents a stand-in for the playwright, who stirred controversy with an article titled “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal.”

Virtually nothing in the play rings true, from the central premise to the dialogue (that includes the shrink, when asked during his deposition to define mental illness, responding that it’s “a disruption of the spirit”) to the strained climactic plot revelation that redefines the entire situation.

Although Mamet has been in the habit of staging his own works in recent years, the chore here has been left to Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic, a company long associated with the playwright. The task is heavy lifting indeed. The evening runs a scant 90 minutes, including an unnecessary intermission (perhaps a considerate gesture to playgoers wishing to flee), but it feels interminable. Tim Mackabee’s set design consists of a mere wooden table and chairs, which are laboriously rearranged between scenes, apparently to remind us that the locale has changed.

And then there’s the elephant in the room, namely Pidgeon, who happens to be the playwright’s wife. While the other performers handle their problematic roles with reasonable proficiency, the actress delivers a performance that can best be described as wooden. Completely incapable of breathing life into the already cumbersome dialogue, she stops every scene she’s in dead in its tracks. Why Mamet continues to cast her in his plays despite the barrage of bad notices she’s received over the years is a mystery only a marriage counselor could solve.

Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Rebecca Pidgeon, Chris Bauer, Jordan Lage, Lawrence Gilliard Jr.
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Neil Pepe
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Laura Bauer
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company