NEW YORK—Two intense women face each other in David Mamet’s self-directed two-hander, “The Anarchist.”
The term anarchist is applied here to leftist radical Cathy (Patti LuPone), now being interviewed by prison official Ann (Debra Winger). Cathy hopes that Ann, who holds the power, will agree to release her from prison, where she has already served 35 years. Her crime was a political action leading to a botched robbery that resulted in the shooting death of a police officer.
The dead man’s relatives are waiting in a nearby room, having made clear their wishes that Cathy never again experience freedom. In their eyes, Cathy must pay for her crime with a lifetime behind bars.
That Ann is to leave her post shortly ratchets up tensions. She must finish up her work accurately and effectively. Cathy, who has dealt with Ann for many years, desperately wants an immediate favorable conclusion to avoid facing a new interlocutor in the future.
Cathy is highly intellectual and clever. She offers reasonable explanations as to why she should be set free: She’s been a model prisoner; she deserves, she feels, to go to the side of her ailing father, who may die shortly; she’s an old woman and is no longer a threat to society; she has served enough time, and further, has repented of her crime.
It’s on that last point that Ann catches her up. Has Cathy really repented? Not so, Ann opines—not until Cathy gives up the whereabouts of her major accomplice, who is in hiding. Until Cathy does so, Ann regards her as still guilty. Cathy insists she doesn’t know where the other woman is.
So begins a cat-and-mouse game between the two. Cathy comes up with more arguments. Although originally Jewish, she has converted to Christianity, pointing out that it is a philosophy of forgiveness, undoubtedly shared by Ann. (Both women wear small gold crosses about their necks.)
LuPone, an old hand in interpreting Mamet, having acted in several of his plays in the past, readily handles his dialogue, which is sometimes convoluted and difficult. She presents a Cathy who is forceful and aggressive, but always courteous and reined in so as not to offend her captor.
Winger, though arguably best known for her film work, is also an experienced theater performer. Her Ann is subtler than Cathy, more restrained on the surface, seemingly introverted. But she is always quietly on her toes, aware of Cathy’s various ploys and manipulations. In the end, it is Ann who pulls the strings.
I was struck by almost opposing interpretations of the material by some viewers. One, in particular, intrigued me: The theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones, wrote (Dec. 2) that the play “is, without question, a deeply conservative play by a writer who, in various published musings, has announced his embrace of what most of the people who pay attention to contemporary drama would think of as far-right political positions.”
Others, myself included, take an opposite view of the philosophy expressed in “The Anarchist.”
As they say, that’s what makes a ball game—a play too?
It’s an intriguing theater piece with stark sets and costumes by Patrizia Von Brandenstein and lighting design by Jeff Croiter, complementing the severe tone of the offering.
252 West 45th Street
Running Time: 75 minutes
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit Ticketmaster.com
Closes: Dec. 16
Diana Barth writes and publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information: firstname.lastname@example.org
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