One can only assume that actresses with as much clout and freedom of choice as Patti LuPone and Debra Winger signed into The Anarchist, the new play written and directed by David Mamet that opened last night at the John Golden Theatre, sight unseen. How else to explain why two such notably discerning talents ended up committed to such a slight, unworthy show?
LuPone is Cathy, a radical who has been convicted of and imprisoned for a murkily described bank robbery as part of a Weather Underground-style group (she is modeled after Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark). Two police officers were murdered in the act. After having served 35 years, she pleads her case for parole to prison official Ann (Winger, in her Broadway debut). Her father is on her deathbed, and she would like to see him. We know little about Cathy – including whether she is to be trusted and has really found reformation through worship of Christ, but her plea is worth careful consideration. After all, had her crime not been committed under political motivations, she most likely would have already been paroled. Ann, meanwhile, distrusts Cathy, assuming she has been in touch with her unseen lover and accomplice, Althea. Cathy insists she has not. Which is true? Is Cathy still a threat? Is Ann being unfair, ruled by either an emotional or a political agenda?
Mamet’s production reveals this set-up to be far less enthralling than the description. Both characters remain ciphers; it is impossible to ever know with whom to side in Anarchist. We never learn if Cathy truly cares for her father or is just using his imminent death as an excuse – all we know is that the Jewish-born Cathy has rejected the religion and independent wealth into which she was born. Additionally, a work such as this cries out for institutional commentary on the prison system, on the notion of rehabilitation. There is none. And it isn’t as though there wasn’t room left in the play to add such clarification. Mamet’s two-hander – barely an hour long – does little more than meander, both on the page and on the stage. He has directed his leads so that Ann and Cathy merely talk and walk around in circles, repeating themselves. And the playwright’s dialogue lacks credibly human voice — their recitative doesn’t remotely resemble the way people talk. Furthermore, all of the characters’ interruptions feel anticipated; they stop right before it is time for the other character to interject.
In addition to the Broadway diva’s landmark musical roles, LuPone has also proven to be a strong interpreter of Mamet’s work; her performance in The Old Neighborhood remains a major career triumph for the actress. And she has a sturdier grip on Mamet’s prosaic prose than Winger, who (distractingly clad in a lop-sided curlicue hairdo not seen since Marlee Matlin picked up her Oscar in 1987) sleepwalks through the role as though they were still in a table read. But they are caught in a net. There’s no way around it: this is an embarrassment of a show, and it is hard to fathom the hubris of a playwright who would allow innocent audience members to pay upwards of $125 each for a ticket to this claptrap. I pity all the talented but unknown writers deserving of a real estate on the Great White Way, people for whom a Broadway berth could prove a game changer for their careers and livelihoods, denied such a spot to make room for something like Anarchist. Cathy’s criminal guilt may remain unclear in the play, but there’s no doubt that Mamet should be convicted of the crime of theatrical squatting.
John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street. www.theanarchistbroadway.com. Through Feb. 17.
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