12/03/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

First Nighter: David Mamet's New Play, The Anarchist , Incites Wrong Kind of Uprising

It's rare when this highly opinionated reviewer leaves a production at a complete loss for words. Or thoughts. But that's the condition I was in when staggering up the Golden Theatre aisle after David Mamet's new -- well, I guess you can call it a play -- maybe 65-minute, maybe 70-minute play, The Anarchist.

Nor was I alone in my critic's stupor. "What did you get out of that?" I asked the woman who accompanied me. She answered in a word: "Nothing."

As for me now, I can definitely relay what transpired as I paid close attention to the stage and to the two characters presented there. They were Mamet veteran Patti LuPone (why she didn't win a Tony for her appearance in Mamet's The Old Neighborhood I still can't fathom) and Broadway debutante Debra Winger.

Both of them took to Jeff Croiter's helpful lighting in somewhat mannish outfits. Endlessly, they circled each other in the antiseptic environment that set-and-costume designer Patrizia von Brandenstein provided and which featured a desk, a table, five low filing cabinets (stacked two on two and one abutting alone) and several chairs.

LuPone, her hair streaked with grey and pulled back in a severe ponytail, was portraying a prisoner who we in the audience eventually learned was named Cathy and whom it took us even longer to suss out was possibly up for parole after having been incarcerated for thirty-five years as a result of a politically-motivated crime. As Mamet reticently informed us, Cathy had shot and killed two cops called Fiske and Anderson. This, it seemed, made her the titular character.

Winger, her hair drawn to one side and pinned in place (and looking taller than we might have thought she was from her many important film appearances), was Ann, a warden (or perhaps another prison official) entrusted with the power to decide whether Cathy was qualified for parole or whether her crime was indeed unpardonable, no matter how motivated or justifiable it might be or how convincing Cathy's redemptive behavior had been.

So, okay, Mamet's intentions aren't that obscure -- certainly not in the context of themes he's plugged in the past. (Promoting them with, a longtime Mamet fan might imagine, a cigar clenched tightly in his mouth.) He's interested in the delicate balance of justice. He's enthralled by law and lawyers and courtrooms (cf. Romance and Race). He's intrigued by the pros and cons, the advances and setbacks of civil disobedience.

He wants to debate the issues in order, it would seem, if not to reach answers, then to raise questions for spectators to ask themselves and each other. It's likely he means this debate to reflect his right-leaning agenda -- to transmit some attitude towards anarchy. But the stage goings-on are too amorphous for those clues to come through with any degree of clarity.

Then again, debates may be theatrical in their standard setting, but they're not theater in the traditional sense. They're definitely not as mooted here where information is doled out in dribs and drabs and ultimately insufficiently. Patrons are not told enough to reach a conclusion on whether Cathy has earned a release or whether Ann is right to keep Cathy behind clanged-shut doors. Perhaps Mamet wants ticket buyers to decide, but if so, he's sending them to the jury room without filling in enough for a verdict.

Compounding the problem is the direction, which is Mamet's, and, as often with him, strictly his because he has a vision for how his work must be performed that he doesn't want altered by anyone else. Because he's known for discouraging any degree of undue interpretation, LuPone and Winger not only stay away from heavy emoting almost throughout but actually deliver the better part of their lines in virtually the same tone of voice.

Worse, because they're often required to interrupt each other, the curious effect is that of two automatons reciting one long, soporific speech. And as they deliver it, while passing each other from desk to chair to filing cabinets to chair to desk to table to chair and so on, neither of them can be deriving much satisfaction from their assignments. They might even be thinking, Where am I supposed to be now?

Perhaps that's not at all the case, and they're truly reaping gratification. Nevertheless, the audience isn't. Which leads to a baffled critic noting that Mamet's 1983 Glengarry Glen Ross opens later this month. In this man's estimation, it's the best American play of the 1980s, and therefore, if this season you can only see one David Mamet play, I suggest that's the one to attend.