City Arts: Doing the Right Thing

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Theater.


Mamet’s ‘The Anarchist’ explores our social divide

Debra Winger in The Anarchist.

Broadway’s newest drama, The Anarchist, proves that David Mamet has not just become a conservative; he’s become a poet. Taking as his inspiration the 1981 Brinks incident where subversives from the Weatherman Underground were convicted for killing a Nyack, N.J., policeman, Mamet examines the motives of political radicals and the principles of social guardians. His antagonists are Cathy (Patti Lupone), who is awaiting parole after serving 20 years, and Ann (Debra Winger), the parole officer charged to adjudicate the parole. Their dialogue personalizes formal academic debate.

Poetics occur when Cathy, with her cagey dismissals of the system, ardently opposes Ann’s dedication to upholding the law. The contrast between beliefs and morals is defined by the personalities of these two women: one’s cunning versus the other’s sincerity; one’s passion versus the other’s wisdom. These women also argue those same positions subliminally, within themselves. Mamet’s language is almost chaste; the profane background of a heinous political act (“called protest though it was crime”) is enough. The women’s wrenching internal argument requires plain, though fervent, discussion.

The Anarchist’s dual character study recalls the tension of Strindberg’s seminal two-person drama The Stronger. This similar battle of psychological strength becomes relevant to contemporary political polarization. Mamet’s concerned with the way American citizens—ever more divided since the turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s and the 2000 presidential election—reveal passions that fuse them. Mamet provides dialectics about politics, but above all Cathy and Ann talk about personal morality. An interesting—and probably the most sincere—aspect of Mamet’s conservatism shows in his leanings toward religious reasoning, which he often expresses with biblical and Talmudic references. It is anarchist Cathy who expresses newfound religious fervor (“the soul is the spirit of God; it unites us”), a sign of Mamet absolving a straw man to argue with himself through the depths of our polarization.

Mamet himself directs this dry drama with severe simplicity, even as the discussion circles through Judeo-Christian tenets and Marxist/democratic principles, briefly toying with intellectual and sexual seduction. He needs powerhouse actresses to hold attention, and both Lupone and Winger do. The stage veteran provides aggressive energy, and the movie star supplies reflective subtlety. This contest of acting styles is itself Strindbergian. The result can be fine and moving, as in this exchange:

Ann: I want to save you because you have a soul.
Cathy: How do you know?
Ann: Because I have a soul.

In The Anarchist, Mamet uses his art to resolve the social tensions inherited from our political history. The play shrewdly avoids polemics (the failure of playwright Tony Kushner’s Lincoln) and goes deeper. As said in Mamet’s best film, the 1999 adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Winslow Boy, “Justice is easy. Doing right is hard.”

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