Perhaps the most shocking thing about playwright/director David Mamet's new 70-minute play, The Anarchist, now at Broadway's John Golden Theatre, is that not one unprintable curse word is uttered. (No need for asterisks in this review!) You could probably even bring the kiddies to the show, so long as they can handle a discussion about the joys of lesbian sex. However, odds are you will both have trouble digesting the play's too-often circular intellectual debate about the possibility of redemption.
Set in the office of a prison warden (neatly if forgettably designed by Patrizia von Brandenstein), the work is essentially a long, uninterrupted confrontation between two women. Cathy (two-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone in an impressive non-musical turn) is up for parole after serving 35 years for killing a policeman as part of an unnamed revolutionary group's initiative. Ann (Academy Award nominee Debra Winger, making her inauspicious Broadway debut), Cathy's jailer, sometimes confidant and (apparently) longtime antagonist, is undecided on whether to grant Cathy's request to be released.
The initial crux of Cathy's argument--repeated ad infinitum--is that, although she was born a Jew, she has found faith as a Christian and has therefore "changed." She has even written a manuscript detailing her beliefs, and expressed a desire to, upon her release from prison, live with nuns and help the poor. Cathy is also willing to not only give any profit from the book to the family of the officer she killed, but plans to assign them a large sum of money she will soon inherit from her dying father.
But as Ann points out--and as Mamet repeatedly makes clear--words can easily be used to seduce, mislead, or even bury the truth. Moreover, when it comes to assuring another of one's redemption, mustn't there be some action taken to back up one's words? When Ann asks Cathy to reveal the whereabouts of her former female lover and co-conspirator--essentially as "proof" of her conversion--the stakes momentarily get higher, and the play picks up some dramatic momentum.
Also adding what little fuel there is to this flickering fire are two other contested issues. The first is the responsibility of the state (personified by Ann) in protecting society from possibly violent criminals through incarceration, a discussion that occurs late in the play and mostly retreads clichés from hundreds of movies and Law & Order episodes.
The second--and seemingly juicier issue at hand--is Ann's feelings about Cathy's lesbianism. Cathy frequently lectures her jailer about her sexual repression (which apparently can be cured by believing in Christ), and taunts her about never sleeping with any of the female inmates. But it's never completely clear if Ann (once married and a mother) is actually sexually attracted to or truly repulsed by women. Nor is it clear how much her feelings on the subject are affecting her decision to release Cathy.
LuPone, who starred in the Broadway production of Mamet's The Old Neighborhood, shows a deft facility with the script, bringing a fierce intelligence, complete conviction, a decided lack of vanity, not to mention excellent enunciation, to her performance. Her valiant efforts, however, cannot always make up for some of the inherent inconsistencies in Mamet's script.
Still, much of the confusion in the play--as well in Ann's motivations--lies in Mamet's decision as director to cast Winger in this pivotal role. The actress' verbal delivery is consistently flat, occasionally tentative, and too often works against Mamet's very particular rhythms, further obscuring the playwright's meaning. She also seems physically wrong for someone described by Cathy as an old, sexless woman. Winger looks remarkably fit and youthful--so much so that you half-expect her at play's end to let down her hair and go running into a field.
However, Mamet has a far different, almost Neil LaBute-like ending in store. It may satisfy a few audience members, but many others will yearn for a meatier payoff given their investment of time and money. In fact, the only revolution The Anarchist is likely to spark is one where some particularly angry theatergoers storm the box office asking for a refund.