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The Penitent

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 27, 2017

Rebecca Pidgeon and Chris Bauer
Photo by Doug Hamilton

The Penitent, the new play by David Mamet at the Atlantic Theater Company, is a stylish and sharp-looking stab at issues that rarely arise in New York theatre today. Religious conversion. Doctor-patient confidentiality. Attorney-client privilege. Even fake news, that popular post-election bogeyman for both the left and the right, is at the center of a key plot development. And, during the moments that Mamet and his director, Neil Pepe, address these matters head-on, it seems as if you're in the midst of—or at least on the cusp of—a bracing modern-day tragedy.

The greater tragedy with The Penitent is that this promise is only fitfully realized. Like Mamet's 2015 Broadway entry China Doll, it's about an upper-crust character that can too often feel remote and implacable, a mysteriously aggrieved symbol rather than a truly relatable person. And like some of his other recent efforts (I'm thinking primarily of his intriguing but frigid 2012 drama The Anarchist), the link between words and actions is formed more from latex than steel. Where we need the razor-honed anger and lacerating psychological insight of early-Mamet American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross, we get a dull scalpel: technically effective, but painfully inefficient.

As a result, a story that ought to be whiplash-inducing in its severity instead creeps and crawls. Charles (Chris Bauer) is a therapist who, for the first time in his career, has refused to testify on behalf of a patient of his who's accused of murdering nearly a dozen people. He insists that his decision is motivated only by an increasingly fervent study of the Bible, as in his middle age he's grown more firm in his Jewish faith. But neither his lawyer and friend Richard (Jordan Lage) nor his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon) take that motive entirely at face value. They believe, not without reason, that there's more to the story. And as the case progresses (largely offstage), their point of view becomes far more convincing than the one Charles sets forth.

Jordan Lage and Chris Bauer
Photo by Doug Hamilton

It's a premise that trades more on intellect than emotion, to be sure, which gives the script, in performance, both an appealing weight and an off-putting turgidity. This isn't necessarily unworkable, but Mamet finds his firmest footing in Act II, when he's tasked with unraveling the web of deceit of he's spun. The scenes are few but crisp and to the point, when Charles must first explain his miraculous change of heart to the opposing attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and then confront the devastation his choices have wrought on his family. And though Mamet and Pepe struggle to bring the heat, they are able to deliver at least a handful of the kind of edge-of-seat chills and surprising turns that generally characterize better legal thrillers.

Sadly, getting there is far less than half the fun. The first act is a convoluted slog, looking movie-star handsome on Tim Mackabee's upscale office set as uncompromisingly lighted by Donald Holder, but dragged down by Mamet's prosaic, uninspiring dialogue ("One aspect of intimacy," Charles moans at one point, "is that it tests us. In... it proves us. In the old sense. It exposes us to trauma") and his even more leaden attempts to keep certain key discoveries secret until after intermission. (Considering that the whole show, including the break, runs about 80 minutes, one wonders why he and Pepe bothered.) Charles's plight is ill defined and its implications vague; if not for his amusing (and slightly awkward) explication on how the press is trying to destroy him for their own purposes, there would be nothing of substance to grab onto at all.

Lage, however, is outstanding as Richard: wry, acerbic, loyal, and dangerous all at once, a vivid picture of a high-powered lawyer who is all too aware of the undue influence he wields. Gilliard wears a bit too broad of a sneer as Robert's antagonistic counterpart, but lands squarely as a formidable courtroom opponent in the single scene in which he appears. But despite the Rock of Gibraltar resilience with which Bauer invests Charles, he comes across as dull and reactive; Bauer can't patch the hole in the writing that casts this man as little more than someone terrible things constantly happen to. And Pidgeon is stilted and starchy throughout, never letting us see the drastic transformation Kath undergoes on the journey her husband unwittingly forces her to take.

But I doubt that this evening would work much better if Kath's evolution were clearer; even the best acting can mitigate a lack of energizing content only so much. The play's underlying questions, about what we owe ourselves, our family and friends, and whatever God we may worship when we're faced with personal calamity are worthwhile, and if anyone is going to do justice to them, it would probably be Mamet, who's usually not afraid to step outside of traditional theatrical comfort zones. But his unwillingness to go as far as he needs to here leaves The Penitent with more the air of an apology than the skin-flaying accusation it so desperately longs to possess.

The Penitent
Through March 26
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: