So what went wrong with David Mamet’s latest play, The Anarchist? Its premiere production began previews on Broadway on November 13th, had its opening night as scheduled on December 2nd, and announced a closing date the following morning for the 16th after a critical drubbing that cited, depending on the publication, the actors, the writing, and the direction.
As both the writing and direction of The Anarchist are by David Mamet, most of the presumed responsibility falls on his shoulders. As Mamet is one of our greatest living playwrights, it seems a heavy burden to place on his writing, and an unfair one at that given the strength of his arguments in his latest play and a particularly strong performance from costar Patti LuPone, who carries the brunt of the play’s dramatic weight.
A two-hander set in a prison office, The Anarchist focuses on themes of crime and punishment. Cathy (LuPone) has been incarcerated for thirty-five years for a Weather Underground-style murder. For the duration of the play, we hear Cathy’s plea for release and the counterarguments of Ann (Debra Winger), her warden, who is about to leave her post at the prison and whom Cathy believes may have it in her heart to perform an act of mercy on the eve of her departure. Cathy, who’s written a book about her conversion to Christianity, cites her rehabilitation as reason enough to be set free.
Cathy also wants very much to see her ill father, a rich man, before he dies. Ann, on the other hand, questions Cathy’s motives, convinced that she’s out to impress rather than truly remorseful and transformed. Cathy defends herself, asserting that in a situation like hers, the imprisoned would be inherently apt to impress. “What if the actions of Saints were done to impress” she asks. “We don’t know their motives.”
The play hits the ground running with its heavy-hitting philosophical themes and continues for its seventy-minute length without pause. If the plot and characters are less fully developed than Mamet’s last full-length piece, Race, its arguments are more compelling. The mystery surrounding Cathy’s past is unraveled as the play goes along and continues to intrigue, though an occasionally flaccid performance from Winger stunts some of the fireworks between the two actresses.
What’s ultimately lacking here are compelling stakes. Despite the fact that Patti wants to see her dying father, there’s little here to propel the play forward in terms of plot and depth of character. It’s difficult to summon too much remorse for a murderess who longs to see her father one last time, in particular when these are the only stakes to be found. The character of Ann, sketched out in vague pencil lines, is closer to a straight-man type than to a fully-developed character; she serves essentially as the inquisitor while Cathy takes the reins and ignites the play’s arguments.
As with many Mamet plays, there’s a twist toward its conclusion — and the twist here is a compelling one when considering the play’s overall themes of punishment and rehabilitation.
What seems to have disappointed so many about The Anarchist is the high level of expectation for any new work by Mamet. With two big-name stars and a megawatt writer-director, those paying top dollar to attend The Anarchist, especially if they’re familiar with the prisoner-warden dynamic, are going in with expectations of a snappy, gritty piece of theatre, with plenty of sparks between the leads and a full-length running time. That what they’re greeted with is a more cerebral and shorter-than-average duologue seems to have caught most theatergoers off guard, and the shortage of real conflict here (not to be mistaken for philosophical arguments) has done nothing to alleviate the sense that The Anarchist has in some way failed in its mission.
Having attended the play with a free press ticket, I found its arguments fully engaging and LuPone’s performance to be worthy of a trip to the theatre. Had I paid the top price of $134.50, however, I may very well have left with the same feelings of having been cheated; had this one started at a non-profit theatre, with the descriptor “a theatrical dialogue,” there might have been more forgiveness toward this far-from-dreadful play. As it stands, it’s set to close prematurely — disappointingly so — which only proves that Mamet’s anarchic attitude to Broadway has been both his muse and his undoing. Nonetheless, if discounts are to be had, it’s well worth catching before its demise in spite of its flaws.