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Theater review: Is David Mamet trolling us with The Penitent, his latest dud?

Written by
Helen Shaw

It would be disingenuous to ask how on earth David Mamet's latest under-conceived, underwritten play came to be produced. We know. First, Mamet's early dramas (Speed the Plow, Glengarry Glen Ross) were wonderful enough that people are still willing to watch his work—even though he has long since coasted to a creative stop. And second, The Penitent is up at the Atlantic Theater Company, which he co-founded in 1985. What, they're going to say no? Poor things.

The Penitent, ironically, is about what it means to be good. (It has been too shoddily constructed to actually gel around this idea, but it does point at it.) Is Charles (Chris Bauer), a psychiatrist, being good when he refuses to testify for his patient, a psychopath who just shot ten people? He invokes his Hippocratic Oath to stay silent. Is Charles good when he won't accept a newspaper's apology after it libels him? It claims he described gayness as an “aberration,” and he refuses their offer of a correction. And is he good when he dodges questions about his Judaism whenever a lawyer (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) asks him to explain if it affected his care of the homicidal boy? Certainly his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon, struggling with basic tasks here) and his own lawyer Richard (Jordan Lage) believe in his moral uprightness, although they keep advising him to give in to the constantly changing “them.” As Kath insists, “You're better than I!” This attitude is—given the information offered by the play—ridiculous.

It feels wrong to describe Mamet's interchanges as conversations. All of them, even the attempts to deliver a phone message, are arguments had in bad faith; certainly, little effort has been made to make them sound like human speech. Wives, for instance, don't actually repeat the last three words their husband said, but on an aggressive, interrogative upswing. The marks of something hastily written are all over the text, and its world is badly imagined and unbelievable. An accidentally hilarious denouement tries to power-pack action into the dull tale: We learn that offstage there's been an affair, a crack-up, a gun, a pile of lies, and a plot. Those simply…didn't come up earlier.

Perhaps worried that the evening might seem unsubstantial, director Neil Pepe inserts a 12-minute intermission to stretch things to 80 minutes. (A stagehand comes out. He adjusts a table on the simple unit set, puts a pen on the table and leaves. I was still laughing when the lights went down.) And indeed, Pepe and Mamet may be straight-up trolling us. Charles wears the pale glasses frames that are Mamet's signature; Mamet's actual wife plays Charles's wife. We're being dared to take Charles as Mamet's avatar, to superimpose the attacks on Charles over the ones that have greeted Mamet's latter-day work—the pans of his plays (which still make millions), the shocked response to his turn towards conservative politics. In a way, the play's very incoherence is illuminating. Charles always feels assaulted, and, though his targets keep drifting, he always feels people are putting words in his mouth.

Is this how Mamet experiences life? It must be exhausting to have this sense of moral outrage constantly clamoring at you, and no wonder the din has overwhelmed his poet's ear. Let's let the man have some quiet—some long rest without a distracting production. Maybe if everything gets very, very still, he'll be able to hear his better playwriting angels again.

Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. One intermission. Through March 26. Click here for full ticket and venue information. 

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