It feels like familiar territory as soon as the lights go up on two people, mid-conversation, speaking in that jaunty rhythm of clipped communication; those overlapping thoughts and unfinished sentences where you can sense every dot of each ellipsis.
It’s the kind of conversation best exemplified by the movie executives of Speed-the-Plow or the real estate agents of Glengarry Glen Ross. What’s missing, though, are the four-letter words such rhythms traditionally orchestrate. One reason might be because of the situation that brings the characters together. Another is that, for the first time, David Mamet has written in that style for two women.
The Anarchist, which Mamet also directs, is a taught, verbal and tense seventy-minute play that, in this premiere production, barely moves physically, but keeps jabbing at the ear with its drops of information that the viewer must piece together to eventually understand the whole back-story and where the plot is going. As in Oleanna, we never see the two characters without each other so what is truth and what may be an act is always in question.
Patti LuPone plays Cathy, born of a wealthy Jewish family, who rejected her upbringing to join a radical faction of what’s simply referred to as “the movement.” She’s been jailed for 35 years for her involvement in a political action, not fully described, that left two police officers dead.
Every year on this date, Cathy has a closed-door conversation with Ann (Debra Winger), an unspecified official who will decide if she should be eligible for parole; something that the families of the two police officers, waiting just outside the door, vehemently oppose.
At this meeting they discuss a book Cathy has written – one that Ann can prevent from ever being published – where she explains how she has given her life to Jesus Christ and wishes to be released only to spend her remaining time working in seclusion with nuns. She vows to give any money earned from the book to charity, as well as any money she may inherit from her cancer-stricken father.
Ann, in turn, desires the whereabouts of one of Cathy’s accomplices; one who may also have been her lesbian lover.
As the situation demands, the play is primarily about Cathy’s persuasiveness. Has the once-famous and charismatic radical really turned into this weary, repentant sinner who wishes no more than a chance to say goodbye to her father and then be free to dedicate herself to doing God’s will? Does her book contain more information than might appear on the surface? The excellent LuPone is convincing in portraying a type of sincerity that may or may not be hiding a well-executed seduction.
Winger’s role is more to digest the information and not reveal to the prisoner, nor to us, exactly where her sympathies lay. She handles it well enough, but it’s not the showy role that Cathy is and the evening suffers a bit of an imbalance.
While the organization is never mentioned by name, Cathy can safely be assumed to have been a member of the Weather Underground, as their political stances are introduced as part of her past.
Mamet has done this before, and has done it better. But The Anarchist remains an intriguing addition to his list of plays that introduce a theme and then requires audience members to complete the experience by discussing it on their own after leaving the theatre.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Patti LuPone; Bottom: Debra Winger.
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