David Mamet’s new play “The Anarchist” contains — shock! — not a single swear word. But some are certain to be used by theatergoers walking out after the show.
The brief play that opened Sunday at the Golden Theatre feels as sterile and lifeless as an interrogation, which it basically is — two actresses playing a verbal cat-and-mouse game. It seems more like a fragment of a play, or an acting exercise or a film short.
Mamet, who also directs, has written a bouillabaisse of intellectual thought, thick chunks of hard-core Christianity mixed with leftist political and sociological philosophies. Very smart, just not very interesting.
Patti LuPone plays Cathy, a middle-aged prison inmate seemingly based on former Weather Underground member Judith Clark, who got an indeterminate sentence behind bars after a deadly armored truck robbery.
After 35 years in prison — with a spotless prison record and a conversion to Christianity — Cathy is now pleading for clemency with the warden, Ann, played by Debra Winger.
“I have repented my crime. I have served that sentence four times in excess of that which you would have imposed on a ‘mere’ criminal. Why do you fear me?” Cathy asks.
Her appeal is complicated by the possibility that an accomplice might still be free and that the warden, who is leaving her job, wants to maintain a good legacy. Ann wants a sign, proof that the former revolutionary is sincere.
Running an intermissionless 70 minutes, “The Anarchist” starts in second gear and never really speeds up or slows down, just becomes wave after wave of staccato dialogue that is more pleasant on the page than spoken. No one talks like this and the two actresses struggle to make something unnatural seem natural.
“The Prophets were demonstrably mad,” says Cathy at one point.
“They were mad?” says Ann.
“They’d seen God,” replies Cathy.
“Have you seen God?” asks Ann.
“I would like to see my father,” says Cathy.
“Have you seen God?” asks Ann.
LuPone, a Mamet veteran who has appeared in his films “Heist” and “State and Main” and his plays “The Old Neighborhood” and “The Woods,” plays Cathy with weary resignation but passion when she explains her faith.
Winger’s Ann, the harder part, is more cagy, stiff and humorless. As the play progresses, it’s clear that Ann has an encyclopedic knowledge of her inmate’s life — she throws out references to Cathy’s old writings, letters and even scrawls in the margins of her books.
She is playing the long game and this interrogation — one long, continuous scene set in what Mamet calls “a bare office” — has been mapped out long before. Winger beautifully reveals the reason for her overly magisterial tone.
Credit Mamet for making both his heroines — the playwright is not known for putting women at the center of his plays — sympathetic, despite his own personal political shift from left to right.
Ann and Cathy trade arguments about whether people can change and sympathies can alter depending on who is talking. But the playwright undermines that with a creepy fascination with lesbianism and a play that seems to hate pausing even for a second.
It fails to connect to the heart or the mind. But at least it’s mercifully short. No sooner have you arrived at the theater than you are back in the street, puffing in the cold air — and maybe sending out an expletive, too.
David Mamet’s new Broadway play “The Anarchist” is a prison duet about two women on opposite sides of the law out to seduce each other one last time.
Not for sex, but for freedom.
Sounds juicy, but sadly it isn’t really so, despite the best efforts of Patti LuPone and Debra Winger.
Between its structural ambiguity and heady philosophizing, this short, dense and dry drama at the Golden Theatre is often a head-scratcher. It starts abruptly and ends the same way.
Mamet’s work on stage and film is famous for button-pushing scenarios, brutal characters and profanity-laced, rapid-fire dialogue.
One example is “Glengarry Glen Ross,” about savage salesmen, which is running in a revival down the block.
While the elliptical phrasings and a last-minute Gotcha! are straight from the Mamet playbook, there’s not a four-letter word to be heard in “Anarchist.”
Often the conversation sounds like brainy Ph.D. candidates trying to one-up the other over lunch.
After a while you may crave an F-bomb as the 75-minute break-free play unfolds in a utilitarian office, designed by Patrizia von Brandenstein, who also came up with the clothes.
Fortunately, Mamet, who directs his play, cast two big stars — better yet, a pair of excellent actresses. Each brings her own potent electrical surges.
LuPone, famous for musicals like “Evita” and “Gypsy,” for which she won Tonys, knows her way around a Mamet drama. She’s been in eight of them.
Wearing a dull gray wig, LuPone shines with fierce intelligence as Cathy. She’s an infamous prisoner who renounced her privileged upbringing, got entranced by radicals à la Patty Hearst and has been incarcerated 35 years for murdering two cops.
But now Cathy has found Jesus and claims she’s a different person. She’s even written about it in a book.
Winger, as Ann, the prison case worker in a tailored blue suit and updo coif, isn’t quite convinced.
Making her Broadway debut, the Oscar-nominated actress brings a no-nonsense, straight-back confidence and is right at home on stage. She’s got a voice filled with its own earthy music that is constantly intriguing.
If only the same could be said of Mamet’s play. Maybe then you wouldn’t find yourself, like Cathy, fixed on getting out.
Broadway prefers comfort food: a familiar classic here, a new comedy there, maybe a hot-button-issue drama to look relevant. So David Mamet’s “The Anarchist” stands out as a new play of ideas, and a fairly abstract one at that.
Of course, the prospective pill is made more alluring by its headliners. On the one hand we have show-tune queen Patti LuPone; on the other there’s the Broadway debut of Hollywood rebel Debra Winger, whose sudden retirement from movies once prompted a documentary titled “Searching for Debra Winger.”
LuPone plays Cathy, who’s spent the past 35 years behind bars for participating in a robbery in which two officers were shot dead. She’s now pleading for an early parole with Ann (Winger), a prison official who’s been Cathy’s interlocutor for a long time.
Cathy has behaved well and claims to have embraced Christ, making her look like a textbook example of successful rehabilitation. She also wants to see her dying father. When Ann asks what the grounds for release should be, Cathy answers, “Would you mock me for suggesting ‘kindness’?”
But this model prisoner is no “mere criminal” — she had political motives. Modeled on former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark, Cathy was a violent, fanatical zealot who read books by nihilists in the original French and was hellbent on destroying bourgeois society.
One of Ann’s big questions is whether the newly minted Bible reader can be trusted. Is her conversion real or a ploy to impress the authorities? Cathy points out you could ask the same thing of the saints. Does it matter what the motivation is as long as the result is positive?
The entire 70-minute show consists of Cathy’s parole-plea meeting, with the two women tossing arguments back and forth. Mamet is slow and stingy in dispensing details, maybe in an attempt to make the encounter a pure philosophical debate.
But the lack of grounding and personal insight turns the characters into mouthpieces. And the writing, repetitive and blunt, falls short of the lofty aspirations.
Real anger and passion are in short supply, and occur in the more open cat-and-mouse games: when Ann tries to get Cathy to snitch on her old lover/accomplice Althea, or when Cathy implies that Ann is a frustrated lesbian.
That last point is further made by the official’s uptight hairdo and boxy pantsuit, which scream “repressed!” as if we were in a 1970s women-behind-bars movie. At least LuPone’s Ann is equally mistreated by costume designer Patrizia von Brandenstein, who clad her in unflattering, sub-Eileen Fisher linen.
You spend a lot of time staring at those outfits because there isn’t much else to look at — Mamet isn’t the best director of his own plays — and the battle between irreconcilable viewpoints never quite takes off.
Mamet isn’t known for being shy about his opinions, so the real surprise in “The Anarchist” is what a soft punch it packs.
They sure talk fancy in the clink these days.
“The Anarchist,” the heavily embroidered slip of a play now at the Golden Theater, takes place in a women’s penitentiary, a setting that has been used memorably for many a lurid fiction. The show’s stars (and entire cast) are Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, performers celebrated for generating sparks onstage and on screen. And its author is David Mamet, king of the explosive expletive.
Yet this 70-minute drama, which opened on Sunday night in a production directed by Mr. Mamet, is not lurid, spark filled or even expletive laden. “Anarchist” exists on the peaks of a philosophical Olympus where ideas on eschatology, etymology, phenomenology and, yes, criminology are exchanged by intellectual (if not moral) equals.
As for its language, why — aside from one unfortunate outburst toward the end — it is as crisp and unsoiled as the sheets in a five-star hotel. While “Anarchist” portrays a notorious convict and the authority figure who controls her destiny, the relationship here feels less like one of jailbird and turnkey than that of a graduate student defending her thesis and a humorless visiting examiner.
“Women Behind Bars” it ain’t. And Ms. LuPone and Ms. Winger must sink or swim in the thick sea of verbiage into which Mr. Mamet has thrown them. Ms. LuPone, a Mamet veteran, navigates these clotted waters like the freestyle champion she is. Ms. Winger, in her Broadway debut, mostly dog paddles.
Mr. Mamet is of course best known for his testosterone-fueled plays about desperate, foul-mouthed men. These include “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is currently playing in a revival at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, just a few doors down from the Golden. I would love to set up the boys of “Glengarry” with the girls of “Anarchist” to see if they could understand a single word of one another’s languages.
That’s because when Mr. Mamet writes about women, his vocabulary tends to take on a lot of extra syllables and to shed a lot of its vulgar snap. The last all-female play of his that I saw was “Boston Marriage” (staged in New York in 2002), in which the characters spoke like Oscar Wilde. In “Anarchist” they sound more like Roland Barthes. Now that I think of it, both plays strongly feature lesbianism, which might be worth discussing at some other point.
But let us return to the loftier plane on which “Anarchist” conducts its dialogue. This is a show, after all, that in its opening minutes presents a dissection of the concept of patience, replete with linguistic shadings. Cathy (Ms. LuPone), who initiates this discussion, knows from patience. She has been in prison for 35 years, since being convicted in the killing of two police officers, while a member of a Weather Underground-type radical movement.
During her long confinement Cathy has discovered God, she says. She has written a manuscript about her conversion, which she offers as evidence of her (pardon the term) good faith. Cathy, you see, is up for parole, and she must convince Ann (Ms. Winger), a warden cum parole officer (her title is never given), that she deserves her freedom.
And so the debate begins. Wearing horn rims and a navy pantsuit, Ann has the severe air of a bureaucratic don who has done her research. She is armed with annotated manuscripts and files. (Amazing, isn’t it, how people in plays can always instantly find the exact passage they’re looking to quote?) She is fully prepared to spar with Cathy — the product of a rich family and illustrious schools — on semantic distinctions between “conscience” and “consciousness,” in English versus French.
“Cut to the chase,” you might think. In fact the chase is afoot. From the beginning these women are engaged in a high-stakes war of wills, as well as ideologies, in which Cathy will use every weapon in her arsenal — intellectual, emotional and sexual — to acquire her freedom. You may suspect, however, that Ann has already made up her mind. And if you know Mr. Mamet’s politics, which he has never been shy about expressing, you know which way Ann leans.
Mr. Mamet has always been preoccupied with words both as power tools and as camouflage. That’s true whether the language is lowdown (as in “Glengarry” and “American Buffalo”) or high-flown (as in “Oleanna”). This has often involved a certain verbal self-consciousness among his characters. But it has never been as acute as in “The Anarchist,” in which both women are especially aware of words as instruments of misdirection and what Cathy calls the opacity of human motives.
Theatergoers must really furrow their brows here just to follow the basic arguments, never mind the layers of motivation woven into them. And without giving away too much, I think it’s fair to reveal “Anarchist” basically concludes that all those polysyllabic words mean nothing, when you come right down to it. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. When you reach the end of “Anarchist,” you may feel you’ve traveled an unnecessarily winding road to get there.
Mr. Mamet’s avowed (and I think disingenuous) theory of acting is of the just-say-the-words school. It’s true that many of his scripts are so precisely cadenced, that just saying the words can take an actor a fair distance. That would seem to be the approach adopted here by Ms. Winger, whose excellent work in film ranges from her star-making performance in “Urban Cowboy” (1980) to “Rachel Getting Married” (2010).
I suppose you could argue that Ann is meant to be a sort of Dostoyevskian inquisitor, a formidable blank wall against which Cathy throws herself. But for “Anarchist” to crackle it requires at least a little psychological give, not to mention variety, from both its participants. Ms. Winger has a couple of winningly dry line readings, but she often seems to be just marking time onstage.
That leaves Ms. LuPone to carry the emotional content of the play all by herself. She does so valiantly and compellingly, and reminds us that this Tony-winning star of musicals is a terrific dramatic actress. In her Cathy you sense the strain of a naturally arrogant woman trying to be humble and, what’s more, trying to convince herself that she believes in her humility.
Any real dynamic in this generally static play comes from the tension of that internal struggle, which clearly takes its toll on Cathy. Toward the play’s end — after an hour of circumlocution and obfuscation and clarification — Cathy sits down wearily and rasps, “Give me a cigarette.” Though I quit smoking years ago, I knew exactly how she felt.
If the prospect of Patti LuPone and Debra Winger in a two-character prison play by David Mamet conjures some deliriously pulpy women-behind-bars satire, forget it.
Forget also the anticipation of an exhilarating interaction between one of Broadway's most electrifying divas and a long-vanished Hollywood powerhouse in her Broadway debut. LuPone and Winger are terrifically committed to every nonstop syllable of overdrive Mamet-speak in "The Anarchist," and the actresses bounce ideas off one another with the virtuosity of tennis pros.
But "The Anarchist," which runs just 70 minutes, may well be the most severe of Mamet's hyperserious philosophical declamations, a stark and needlessly opaque debate between Cathy (LuPone), a radical prisoner who killed two cops during a leftist political act, and Ann (Winger), her caseworker for the past 35 years.
They have come together before another parole hearing, the last before the officer retires. Since this is a work that Mamet also directed, the delivery is fast, deadpan, stilted and pronounced without the friendly comfort of contractions.
The wonder is that these actors make any emotional connection, and they do, as they talk in historical/intellectual shorthand about Cathy's conversion from wealthy Jewish daughter to political outlaw to author and seeker of forgiveness through Jesus. References are dropped, from activists in Algeria to the "transgressive" nature of the French. From the authority of the State to reason, which, as Cathy opines in a typically intense convolution, "would teach the abandonment of the unfulfillable wish and, so, of the need for patience."
The minimal set and pantsuits are color-coordinated. Cathy, the earthy one with a long silver ponytail, wears flowing aqua and lingers around the aqua upholstered chairs. Winger, the prim brunette with her hair in a tight upsweep, wears a dark tailored suit and sits at the metal desk. (Note to Mamet historians: This is only his second work for two women and both are about lesbians.)
Cathy needs Ann to recommend her parole. Ann reads from Cathy's manuscript. Every so often, the phone rings to remind Ann that the remaining families of the dead cops are waiting.
As I understand the term, nobody here is an anarchist. Mamet is said to consider the piece a "Talmudic argument." It is hard not to wish he were as interested in it as a play.
No living actress has brought more sheer dynamism to the Broadway stage than Patti LuPone. So it's a bit disconcerting when she turns up in David Mamet's new play, The Anarchist (*** out of four), as Cathy, a convicted murderer who has spent 35 years behind bars and seems — initially, at least — utterly defeated by the experience.
"I'm getting old," Cathy says, and you believe her. Her appearance haggard, her voice at once deliberate and subdued, LuPone suggests a worn shell of a human being. But the character, whom we will learn was a famous and charismatic subversive, may still have a few tricks up her sleeve — or may have undergone a conversion that has left her just as passionate for a more acceptable cause.
Anarchist, which opened Sunday at the Golden Theatre, never explicitly tells us where Cathy is coming from as she makes her case to the one other person on stage: a prison official named Ann, played by Debra Winger, who will decide whether Cathy has earned her freedom. But for an intense, provocative 70 minutes, Mamet, who also directed the production, and LuPone keep us guessing.
Cathy's story is informed by that of Kathy Boudin, the Weather Underground acolyte who was a key player in a politically charged crime. Like Boudin, Mamet's creation is a daughter of privilege who took up with revolutionary types and was sentenced for her role in a heist (a bank robbery, in Cathy's case) in which police officers were killed. We glean that Cathy was a cultured, curious young woman who was drawn both intellectually and sensually to what she calls "the Movement."
Appealing to Ann, Cathy renounces her past actions and insists she has found salvation through Jesus Christ. ("Faith" is the F-word you'll hear most often in this Mamet play.) Realizing that this is a common declaration under her desperate circumstances, Cathy admits to some confusion. "My motives are sufficiently opaque to me," she says at one point.
Or are they? Ann's defining trait is her composure; though her position is unspecified, she repeatedly identifies herself as a representative of "the state"; she's the establishment figure sent in to coolly evaluate the feisty transgressor. But Cathy has studied Ann through the years, and seems to know how to rattle her — emotionally, perhaps even sexually. "I think you are a voyeur," she says in one of numerous moments when LuPone gives us a tantalizing glimpse of Cathy's lingering ferocity.
Winger, it must be said, doesn't fire back with anything near LuPone's force. Ann's armor poses a challenge that this marvelous film actress can't seem to crack; Winger's too-level line readings hint at frustration and repression, but there's little sense of a journey.
Though perhaps that's meant to serve a point: that Ann's steadiness has its own challenges? That it will thwart Cathy, no matter how cleverly she adapts and maneuvers? Certainly, The Anarchist leaves no shortage of material for after-theater debate.
David Mamet being David Mamet, he can write plays about whatever he damn well pleases. But he can't seriously expect Broadway auds to share his fascination with the 1960s radical politics of the Weathermen, which he explores ad nauseam in "The Anarchist." David Mamet being David Mamet, he can also direct his own play however he damn well pleases. But he does no favors for the thesps in this two-hander by enabling Debra Winger to drone on and on and Patti LuPone to swallow half her lines. Better ship this one off to the college circuit tout suite.
You already know you're in trouble when Jeff Croiter's crepuscular lighting falls upon the static scene of Patrizia von Brandenstein's grim design for a prison conference room.
The stern-faced woman in a severe business suit and oddly asymmetrical updo, sitting in power-position behind a desk, is Winger. An advocate for progressive social causes since going off movie acting in the 1990s, Winger is a smart choice to play Ann, the prison warden weighing a prisoner's plea for parole.
The tougher-looking woman is LuPone, bravely submitting to wearing baggy pants and having her gray hair pulled back in an unattractive ponytail. In character as Cathy, she plays what appears to be a composite of Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark, the 1960s student political activists in the radical Weatherman offshoot of SDS.
Both were jailed for their active participation in the infamous 1981 robbery of a Brink's armored truck in which two police officers and a security guard were shot and killed. Boudin was freed after spending 22 years in prison. Clark is still serving time and won't be eligible for parole until she's 107 years old.
Mamet has constructed his play in the inert form of a quasi-courtroom drama, with Cathy taking the position that she is a reformed woman, having found religion and worked selflessly for social reforms over the 35 years she's been behind bars. While acknowledging Cathy's accomplishments, Amy argues that the political context of her crime accounts for the strict legal terms of her incarceration -- and for Amy's personal distrust of her ideological reformation.
A good case can be made for both positions, with the argument tilting toward Cathy, who notes that a double standard is being applied to her case because of her youthful political positions.
But by setting up an unassailable ideological impasse, Mamet cuts off all hopes of dramatic development and resolution. And while the scribe hasn't lost his tongue for intelligent talk, the director works hard to impose the flat tones of courtroom discourse, while perversely stifling any hint of emotional expression.