Chris Bauer stars in David Mamet's The Penitent, directed by Neil Pepe, at Atlantic Theater Company.
Chris Bauer stars in David Mamet's The Penitent, directed by Neil Pepe, at Atlantic Theater Company.
(© Doug Hamilton)

David Mamet is one of America's most influential dramatists, but even the author of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow has some swings and misses. The Penitent is one of those misses, the latest in a string that includes The Anarchist and China Doll. This blog post masquerading as a drama is now making its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company (which has been having an exceptionally good season, this show notwithstanding).

It tells the story of Charles (Chris Bauer, looking somewhat like Mamet in a beard and translucent orange-rimmed glasses), a psychiatrist who is called to testify in court on behalf of a gay patient who murdered 10 people. Making matters worse, the patient has written a rambling manifesto in which he calls Charles a homophobe (based on a misreading of one of his scholarly articles) and a major newspaper has printed it.

After consulting with his wife, Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon), Charles decides to sue the paper for libel. His attorney, Richard (Jordan Lage), talks him out of it, insisting that it would be a waste of time and money. "You do not, as the man said, pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the carload," he says, mangling the old maxim. Richard also advises Charles to testify for the defense in order to prove that he's not a bigot. He refuses, leading the killer's attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) to accuse Charles of violating his client's civil rights: He's testified for so many other awful straight people, so why not this awful gay person? Like a medieval inquisitor, he grills Charles during his deposition, especially about his newfound faith in God.

Rebecca Pidgeon plays Kath, and Chris Bauer plays Charles in The Penitent.
Rebecca Pidgeon plays Kath, and Chris Bauer plays Charles in The Penitent.
(© Doug Hamilton)

Religious middle-class professionals under siege; gays lording their privilege over a compromised justice system, with the lying press their willing accomplice: Mamet crafts a terrifyingly unjust world, one that bears little resemblance to ours. This has more to do with clumsy construction than a dive into alternative reality. Every line feels hammered into the script in order to force the story toward its predetermined outcome. When it seems that the media is siding with the killer over her husband, Kath incredulously exclaims, "But he's a murderer," sounding very much like the victim in a late-night commercial for a personal injury lawyer.

The actors deliver uniformly stiff performances as a result of this wooden dialogue. Pidgeon (who is married to the playwright) offers the most glaring example of this: We can hear the em dash in her line delivery, which resembles dictation more than acting. She says the words as she saunters aimlessly across the stage in Neil Pepe's serviceable staging.

The story is presented in a series of seven scenes separated by unnecessarily lengthy blackouts, which sap what little energy and tension the show has built. The play is 90 minutes in total, including a puzzling intermission that feels unnecessary as neither the scenery nor time period changes.

The transitions are completely silent as the actors slightly adjust the furniture. Donald Holder's dramatic side lighting suggests an interrogation scene in a spy thriller, while the shadow of venetian blinds makes us think of film noir. In actuality, The Penitent resembles neither of these genres as much as a far older one posited by Tim Mackabee's minimal set, which consists of two coldly modernist chairs and a wooden table with metal bracing. Shiny laminate floors and a corridor of heavy wood panels conjure a corporate boardroom, making this reductive drama feel more like a traveling pageant for those with a baseless sense of martyrdom.

An attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., right) interrogates Charles (Chris Bauer) about his belief in the Bible in The Penitent.
An attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., right) interrogates Charles (Chris Bauer) about his belief in the Bible in The Penitent.
(© Doug Hamilton)

Mamet attempts to complicate his tale with a piece of hidden evidence, which he jealously guards until the end, as Agatha Christie would with that vital clue to unraveling her whole yarn. It comes entirely too late to make a difference: We stopped caring long ago.

This is too bad because The Penitent tap-dances around big ideas about guilt, professional responsibility, and the moral hazard of paid testimony, which are all worthy topics for the stage. Here, they are all presented in a half-hearted way, raised more by the characters' words than dramatic actions. We get the sense that the increasingly persecuted Charles doesn't actually believe very much in the ability of his profession to make a positive impact in the world. We leave The Penitent wondering if the playwright feels the same way.