I tend to shy away from biographical readings of texts. But consider: David Mamet’s new play, The Penitent, is about a psychologist, Charles (Chris Bauer), who treats a patient who goes on to murder ten people. In his manifesto, this patient, frequently referred to as “the Boy,” accuses Charles of homophobia, and a newspaper covering the case piles on by adding that he once wrote an essay that considered the question of homosexuality as “an aberration.” When he points out that he wrote “an adaptation,” the newspaper issues a half-hearted retraction. He complains to his lawyer, Richard (Jordan Lage), that they’ve “destroyed his reputation.” Richard replies, “They’re a newspaper, that’s what they do.” Charles refuses to testify at the trial or to break his oath of client confidentiality, which threatens both his marriage and his livelihood. An interview with the defense attorney (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) indicates that Charles, who has recently returned to Judaism, might suffer religious persecution, or, as he calls it, an inquisition. Incidentally, Charles wears a short, trim, salt-and-pepper beard and round, orange glasses.
In recent years, Mr. Mamet has become infamous for his conversion to conservatism. He has published a book on the subject, The Secret Knowledge, as well as another, The Wicked Son, which targets liberal Jews who have become religiously irreverent and politically unsympathetic to Israel. The reception of his work, I believe, has suffered as a result, though the work itself has also dwindled a bit since the days of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. How much should be attributed to a hostile press and how much to declining talent is a matter of debate. But it isn’t difficult to see how Mr. Mamet might see a bit of himself in Charles, especially since author, too, has been known to sport a short, trim, salt-and-pepper beard and round, orange glasses (not to mention the Rebecca.
Of course, The Penitent fits into a dramatic tradition of uncompromising zealots at war with mediocrity and human frailty. In many ways, this feels like An Enemy of the People, but with the action played out in curt, two-person exchanges rather than histrionic speeches before crowds bearing torches and pitchforks. But to me, at least, it also feels like the whining of a put-upon old man; it is unfortunate that Charles’ complaints about newspapers match up so neatly with Trumpist anti-intellectualism, but I don’t think it is entirely accidental, either. Anyone who refers to NPR as “National Palestinian Radio” surely no longer feels at home in the theatrical communities that gave birth to Mr. Mamet’s early works, and while that alienation could potentially lead to compelling art, in this case it leads to a grouchy and forgettable play.
The Penitent runs through March 26th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. One intermission.