By Donna Herman
David Mamet is an American theater icon for good reason. He writes plays with nuance and depth that require the audience to really listen and think. About subjects that will stick to your ribs and keep your mind and your guts churning long after you leave the theater. His latest play at The Atlantic Theater Company, The Penitent, is no exception.
Mamet likes to play his cards close to his chest. He lets us see one card at a time and keeps us guessing about what else might be in his hand. The set is spare – two wood paneled walls and a table with two chairs. When the lights go up, Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon) is sitting at the table reading a newspaper. Charles (Chris Bauer) enters and Kath starts telling him about a phone message but he interrupts her and tells her he needs to sit and gather himself, he might need to go away. We know nothing about these two people but it feels like we are dropped into the middle of an ongoing conversation.
For mystery fans like myself, it’s an alluring invitation. We follow the clues like bloodhounds. Kath wants to know why. Charles says he has to think “this” through. Kath wants to know how he came to this decision, has he talked to Richard? No, he didn’t. Then who helped him? The conversation is clearly contentious. Charles doesn’t want Kath to disparage “him.” Who is he?
We learn in tiny jewel-like drops throughout the first scene that Charles and Kath are married. Charles is a psychiatrist who has been treating a young man who has murdered 10 people. The newspapers have asked him for a statement, which he has refused to give on the grounds that it is improper for him to speak about it based on patient confidentiality. They have written that he is the author of an article entitled “Homosexuality Considered as an Aberration,” and because of it, he is a well-known but marginalized member of the psychiatric community. Believing the newspaper reports, “The Boy”, Charles’ former patient, has written an open letter published by the paper. In it, The Boy accuses Charles of refusing to help him because he’s gay. Which is presumably what Kath has been reading.
The “he” Charles has returned from consulting, is his Rabbi. This seems to enrage Kath. She wants him to talk to their friend Richard (Jordan Lage), who is an attorney, and make a sympathetic statement to the newspaper. She asked him to do this from the beginning and doesn’t understand why his professional ethics don’t allow it. Charles tries to explain to her that he is now the victim, that the newspapers have falsely reported the title of his article which was really “Homosexuality Considered as an Adaptation.” He is being libeled and used to sell newspapers. Kath is astonished and asks him if this is the “wisdom” and “solace” he received from the Rabbi.
And this, folks, gets us two-thirds of the way through the first of eight scenes in a 90-minute play with one intermission. I don’t believe in spoilers so I am not going to unravel the plot for you. It’s too much a part of the experience of seeing the play to tell you the rest. The one hint I’ll give you is that Mamet himself is the ultimate con man.
If you’re a theater lover you’ll certainly want to see The Penitent in this, it’s world premiere production. Is it a great play? Yes. Great production? Not so fast. There are pedestal problems with being a theater icon. Director Neil Pepe has worked with David Mamet for over 20 years and that may be part of the problem. Yes, Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon is his favorite leading lady. But is she right for this role? If she is performing robotically, that performance needs to be reshaped. If her pace is slow, her accent a little too BBC, these are things the director needs to deal with, no matter her relationship to the icon, or indeed, his. The first scene gets really bogged down with these issues and unfortunately, Chris Bauer gets caught in Ms. Pidgeon’s odd rhythms. Luckily, in his scenes with the other two actors, notably the mesmerizing scene between Charles and The Attorney – the brilliant Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. – Mr. Bauer shakes off her influence and turns in a fine performance. A stronger hand is needed at the helm here, but the material is worth the trip.
The Penitent by David Mamet, Directed by Neil Pepe
WITH: Rebecca Pidgeon (Kath); Chris Bauer (Charles); Jordan Lage (Richard); Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. (The Attorney)
Scenic design by Tim Mackabee; costume design by Laura Bauer; lighting design by Donald Holder; production stage manager, Mary Kathryn Flynt; assistant stage manager, Patrick Wetzel; casting by Telsey + Company. Produced by The Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, Artistic Director; Jeffrey Lawson, Managing Director. The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. For tickets visit: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/966565. Runs through March 26th.