David Mamet’s new play The Anarchist is not so much a drama about specific people in a narrative arc as a short, brittle, stripped-down debate-club exercise on a stopwatch, pitched to Baby Boomers who remember the destructive handiwork of the radical Weather Underground in 1970. The fictional anarchist here is Cathy (Patti LuPone, playing, we are to assume, someone who has no relation to notorious Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin or Cathy Wilkerson), who seeks parole after serving 35 years of an open-ended sentence for the politically motivated killing of a police officer. The unadorned functionary in charge of Cathy?s case all these years (is she a warden? a parole officer? an assistant DA?) is Ann (Debra Winger), who’s about to hand the case over to someone younger. Each has her own agenda. Cathy, a Jew, says she has found salvation in Jesus and seeks leniency as a result. Ann, asking how Cathy’s conversion helps the family of the man she killed, seeks information on the whereabouts of a co-conspirator still at large.
As characters do in Mamet plays — especially self-directed plays like this one — the two serve and volley dialogue in a fast, unembellished, declamatory manner that allows the playwright to rat-a-tat out a string of political and spiritual notions. (Per Mamet?s preference, the actors aren?t mic’-ed, so that the words disappear into the air with maddening quickness, even for attentive audience members with keen hearing.) Does conversion and spiritual repentance speed the road to atonement? Is an unwavering commitment to the law in a corrupt state still a virtue? What makes a Jew a Jew, what constitutes rehabilitation, what defines a state of grace? Mamet, the tetchy Talmudist, moves his players from sitting, to standing, to looking at papers in a file folder, to sitting again.
But LuPone and Winger might just as well stand at lecterns, two deeply interesting, star-quality actors subsuming all that’s interesting about them in service to brusque badinage between opaque symbols. And although passing mention is made of Cathy?s love of women and Ann’s broken marriage, the femaleness of these (rare) female Mamet characters turns out to be of little real interest to their creator. As he recently wrote, in a newspaper feature about his own play, ”Patti LuPone plays the convict, Debra Winger plays the jailor, and there you have it.” B-
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