A situation rife with dramatic possibilities is given a frustratingly airless treatment in David Mamet’s new drama about a prisoner arguing for her parole before an impassive prison official. Wasting the talents of Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, the latter marking her Broadway debut, The Anarchist is a self-indulgent exercise that, with its barely 70-minute running time and severely limited emotional palette, hardly belongs in a Broadway house (not to mention charging astronomical Main Stem prices).
Set in the dingy confines of the unspecified official’s office—she may or may not be the warden—the play depicts the encounter between Cathy (LuPone), a former violent radical (think the Weather Underground) who was imprisoned decades earlier for the murder of a police officer. Now having an undergone a religious conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, the contrite prisoner proclaims both her innocence and her supposed rehabilitation.
Responding to her pleas in argumentative rhetorical fashion is Ann, whose primary response is to repeatedly offer the possibility of Cathy’s release if she would only give up the whereabouts of her former lover and partner-in-crime.
The give-and-take seems to go endlessly, thanks to the playwright’s stultifying dialogue that displays little of the fiery spark for which he’s renowned. This is Mamet in minimalist mode, more reminiscent of such similarly stifling efforts as The Cryptogram than such early classics as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. By the time the brief evening reaches its supposedly shocking conclusion, playgoers will be left scratching their heads.
Mamet, as he’s demonstrated many times in the past, does himself no favors by also directing the piece. There’s no dramatic momentum to the proceedings, and even these normally reliable actresses seem mainly adrift. Both deliver competent, at times even forceful performances, but they have so little to work with that they barely make an impact. Surprisingly, the veteran LuPone is hard to understand at times, often swallowing her lines, while relative theater novice Winger projects with authority.
While it would be silly to look for lavishness in a prison office, Patrizia Von Brandenstein’s set design seems even more wanly drab than it needs to be, and her unflattering costumes—LuPone in a bulky prison uniform, Winger in a mannish pantsuit—make the performers seem heavier than they actually are.
The frequently repetitive dialogue is peppered with philosophical ruminations about politics, religion, crime and punishment, but here they seem more redolent of the playwright’s soapbox than they are organic to the characters and situation. The Anarchist is represents Mamet at his most mannered and inaccessible, and that’s saying something.
Golden Theatre, 252 W. 54th St. 212-239-6200. www.Telecharge.com. Through Feb. 17.
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