David Mamet being David Mamet, he can write plays about whatever he damn well pleases. But he can’t seriously expect Broadway auds to share his fascination with the 1960s radical politics of the Weathermen, which he explores ad nauseam in “The Anarchist.” David Mamet being David Mamet, he can also direct his own play however he damn well pleases. But he does no favors for the thesps in this two-hander by enabling Debra Winger to drone on and on and Patti LuPone to swallow half her lines. Better ship this one off to the college circuit tout suite.
You already know you’re in trouble when Jeff Croiter’s crepuscular lighting falls upon the static scene of Patrizia von Brandenstein’s grim design for a prison conference room.
The stern-faced woman in a severe business suit and oddly asymmetrical updo, sitting in power-position behind a desk, is Winger. An advocate for progressive social causes since going off movie acting in the 1990s, Winger is a smart choice to play Ann, the prison warden weighing a prisoner’s plea for parole.
The tougher-looking woman is LuPone, bravely submitting to wearing baggy pants and having her gray hair pulled back in an unattractive ponytail. In character as Cathy, she plays what appears to be a composite of Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark, the 1960s student political activists in the radical Weatherman offshoot of SDS.
Both were jailed for their active participation in the infamous 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored truck in which two police officers and a security guard were shot and killed. Boudin was freed after spending 22 years in prison. Clark is still serving time and won’t be eligible for parole until she’s 107 years old.
Mamet has constructed his play in the inert form of a quasi-courtroom drama, with Cathy taking the position that she is a reformed woman, having found religion and worked selflessly for social reforms over the 35 years she’s been behind bars. While acknowledging Cathy’s accomplishments, Amy argues that the political context of her crime accounts for the strict legal terms of her incarceration — and for Amy’s personal distrust of her ideological reformation.
A good case can be made for both positions, with the argument tilting toward Cathy, who notes that a double standard is being applied to her case because of her youthful political positions.
But by setting up an unassailable ideological impasse, Mamet cuts off all hopes of dramatic development and resolution. And while the scribe hasn’t lost his tongue for intelligent talk, the director works hard to impose the flat tones of courtroom discourse, while perversely stifling any hint of emotional expression.