NEW YORK — David Mamet's new play "The Anarchist" contains – shock! – not a single swear word. But some are certain to be used by theatergoers walking out after the show.
The brief play that opened Sunday at the Golden Theatre feels as sterile and lifeless as an interrogation, which it basically is – two actresses playing a verbal cat-and-mouse game. It seems more like a fragment of a play, or an acting exercise or a film short.
Mamet, who also directs, has written a bouillabaisse of intellectual thought, thick chunks of hard-core Christianity mixed with leftist political and sociological philosophies. Very smart, just not very interesting.
Patti LuPone plays Cathy, a middle-aged prison inmate seemingly based on former Weather Underground member Judith Clark, who got an indeterminate sentence behind bars after a deadly armored truck robbery.
After 35 years in prison – with a spotless prison record and a conversion to Christianity – Cathy is now pleading for clemency with the warden, Ann, played by Debra Winger.
"I have repented my crime. I have served that sentence four times in excess of that which you would have imposed on a `mere' criminal. Why do you fear me?" Cathy asks.
Her appeal is complicated by the possibility that an accomplice might still be free and that the warden, who is leaving her job, wants to maintain a good legacy. Ann wants a sign, proof that the former revolutionary is sincere.
Running an intermissionless 70 minutes, "The Anarchist" starts in second gear and never really speeds up or slows down, just becomes wave after wave of staccato dialogue that is more pleasant on the page than spoken. No one talks like this and the two actresses struggle to make something unnatural seem natural.
"The Prophets were demonstrably mad," says Cathy at one point.
"They were mad?" says Ann.
"They'd seen God," replies Cathy.
"Have you seen God?" asks Ann.
"I would like to see my father," says Cathy.
"Have you seen God?" asks Ann.
LuPone, a Mamet veteran who has appeared in his films "Heist" and "State and Main" and his plays "The Old Neighborhood" and "The Woods," plays Cathy with weary resignation but passion when she explains her faith.
Winger's Ann, the harder part, is more cagy, stiff and humorless. As the play progresses, it's clear that Ann has an encyclopedic knowledge of her inmate's life – she throws out references to Cathy's old writings, letters and even scrawls in the margins of her books.
She is playing the long game and this interrogation – one long, continuous scene set in what Mamet calls "a bare office" – has been mapped out long before. Winger beautifully reveals the reason for her overly magisterial tone.
Credit Mamet for making both his heroines – the playwright is not known for putting women at the center of his plays – sympathetic, despite his own personal political shift from left to right.
Ann and Cathy trade arguments about whether people can change and sympathies can alter depending on who is talking. But the playwright undermines that with a creepy fascination with lesbianism and a play that seems to hate pausing even for a second.
It fails to connect to the heart or the mind. But at least it's mercifully short. No sooner have you arrived at the theater than you are back in the street, puffing in the cold air – and maybe sending out an expletive, too.