Half an hour into David Mamet‘s latest, “The Anarchist” at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, I envied three men in my row, who had nodded off. I would never dare, but I am not alone in willing myself to stay awake.
The troubling part is two magnificent actors star in this 70-minute drama. Patti LuPone and Debra Winger never stop talking. After seeing LuPone belt in “Evita,” “Gypsy” and other musicals over the years, it is interesting to see how completely wonderful she is in a drama. Winger is also very good.
Ina piece he wrote for The New York Times, Mamet explained the idea for this stark play came about on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, he read a story about Bill Ayers, a member of the radical Weather Underground of the 1960s, which advocated anarchy, bombed buildings and killed people.
A quote from Ayers, saying he would not rule out doing this again, lingered with Mamet. A couple of hours after reading the article, Mamet was in a private plane, which, he said, became the last plane in the air that fateful morning.
“These things were on my mind when I sat down to write ‘The Anarchist,'” he wrote.
The play is set in a prison. LuPone is Cathy, an anarchist who had shot police officers and has been in prison for 35 years. Winger’s role, as Ann, is less clear. She is probably a prison psychiatrist. Ann asks questions and Cathy answers, philosophizing about religion, the meaning of life and redemption.
Naturally, Cathy wants out. She wants to see her father before he dies and argues that she has served her time.
Ann keeps asking her where one of her accomplices is, and Cathy says she does not know. Ann asks her about redemption and about being born a Jew who has been reborn a Christian in prison. They talk about it and then talk some more.
They talk about wealth and how Cathy, who was born into a rich family, renounces money. It’s clear how incredibly smart both women are, and how such characters could only have stemmed from a smart playwright. But that does not make the play any less forced, or mannered.
Both women are dressed plainly — Winger in a black suit and white blouse with her hair piled on top of her head, and LuPone in a pale green, vaguely Maoist suit to look like prison garb, her hair in a ponytail. The set is a desk, a table and chairs.
The starkness of the set and costumes is to keep the attention on the two women. Ann is leaving her post, and Cathy wants to make sure she is moving toward release before Ann leaves.
They go round and round, stopping on the topics of God, sex, the State and anarchy.
Mamet directs, and it’s hard to imagine that if this play came from an unknown playwright if it would ever have made it beyond a tiny black box theater somewhere in the East Village. As it is, “The Anarchist” is closing Dec. 16 after just 40 performances (17 since its official opening).