Richard III loses his kingdom for want of a horse. The main character in David Mamet’s new play, “The Penitent,” compromises his career because of a typo. Did this renowned psychiatrist refer to homosexuality as “an adaptation”? Or was it “an aberration”? To a wordsmith like Mamet, a slip of the tongue can be fatal for a character – although it’s difficult to care too much either way in this limp drama.
Chris Bauer, known for his roles in HBO series “True Blood” and “The Wire,” plays a more contemplative character in Mamet’s hot-button play, currently in its premiere engagement at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater. As a respected psychiatrist named Charles, Bauer’s character is asked to give up his file notes and testify in court about a former patient, an unstable young man (“the boy”) involved in a mass homicide.
The psychiatrist categorically refuses — and therein lies the moral dilemma, but not the reason for his refusal, which Mamet doesn’t reveal until the final scene. The rest is not silence, but a lengthy circular argument about the moral imperative of upholding doctor-patient confidentiality. Director Neil Pepe’s affinity for Mamet-speak can’t fill in the plot holes.
As far as the ex-patient is concerned, Charles won’t testify because the patient is a member of the LGBT community. That’s a provocative charge, but it lacks drama because the patient doesn’t take the stage to present his own argument. Instead, Mamet introduces a subplot about Charles’s wife, Kath (Rebecca Pigeon) and her lover, Richard (Jordan Lage, looking pleased with himself).
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For his part, Bauer makes a hearty meal of Mamet’s juicy dialogue while doing an admirable job of portraying the ethical dilemma that leads to Charles’s crisis of faith. But it’s hard to grasp why the psychiatrist feels complicit in his patient’s crime — and harder still to understand his conflict of faith and ethics when the reason for it is withheld until it’s too late to care.