Critics are having a blast beating David Mamet’s newest play, The Anarchist, to a pulp, but something about this strikes me as culturally self-mutilating. Of course, we have a history of snubbing our greatest playwrights. How often do we see a Broadway revival of Williams that is not Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Of Albee that is not Virginia Woolf? Of Shepard that is not True West or Buried Child? By my count, there are twenty-two by Miller that have never even made it to the Great White Way. We love our masterpieces, our canonized plays, but we rarely venture into unknown or more challenging territory. Better the disposable, the shallow, and the celebrity-ridden than an interesting if imperfect new work by one of our few living masters. There is an unattractive glee in this conspiratorial turn against Mamet—I suspect it has something to do with his recent party swapping—that makes us all come out looking bad. A brief glance at Time Out London reveals that this week the city has its choice of three Shakespearean revivals. They know how to treat their own over there. We, on the other hand, lionize two hours and fifteen minutes of puerile humor while writing The Anarchist into an early grave.
The Anarchist examines the relationship between Cathy (Patti LuPone), a political terrorist who has spent most of her life in prison, and Ann (Debra Winger), the woman who has the power to recommend her parole. In a riveting seventy-minute conversation, Cathy pleads her case, insisting she has been rehabilitated through Christ, while Ann pushes her to betray the location of her accomplice and former lover. Interestingly, the two are entirely transparent to one another—Cathy is a calculating liar, Ann a disaffected government employee who takes voyeuristic pleasure in listening to the stories of her prisoners. And yet each one continues to insist upon her own façade while working to expose that of the other. “Words have no power?” asks Ann late in the play. “Only to misdirect,” replies Cathy. It is the kind of delicious, verbal con game that has attracted Mr. Mamet for years. The characters relentlessly spar onstage; we rarely know which one is winning.
There are, admittedly, problems with the production of The Anarchist, if not with the text itself. The scenic design by Patrizia Von Brandenstein tries to compensate for the small scale of the play and the large size of the stage—two tables and two filing cabinets are thinly spread across the set, where tighter, denser staging would have served better. And while Ms. LuPone, a Mamet veteran, handles the language perfectly, Ms. Winger, a newcomer, reveals how awkward his dialogue can sound coming out of the wrong mouth. It requires an actor who is fluent in his structured messiness. Ms. Winger, however, appears to have memorized her lines without internalizing them; she always seems about a half second too late on her cues, cues which need to be—more than in most cases—painstakingly precise.
It is true the play needs a better production. But more importantly, we need a better criticism and a better culture. When The Anarchist closes on December 16, it is not only David Mamet and his cast who are losing but the entire New York theatrical community.