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Broadway Reviews

The Anarchist

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 2, 2012

The Anarchist Written and directed by David Mamet. Scenic & costume design by Patrizia von Brandenstein. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Cast: Patti Lupone, Debra Winger.
Theatre: Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 12 and under. (The show contains some adult language.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm & 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, Sunday at 3pm
Ticket prices: $35 - $227
Tickets: Telecharge

Patti Lupone
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Contrition and forgiveness are usually seen as positive qualities that elevate their bearers. But in David Mamet's new play at the John Golden, The Anarchist, they're instead weapons that are wielded frequently, and with terrifying force. As a result, you may never look at either quite the same way again. Although this gripping if cool drama is outwardly about two women, played with staunch ferocity by Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, define their relationship to each other and those they serve, it's impossible not to be thrust into the center of their struggle. What begins as a conflict between two disparate adversaries rapidly becomes an object lesson in the sad but unavoidable truth that some ideologies cannot naturally coexist.

What exactly are those ideologies here? That's an excellent question, but the answer to it is one that Mamet, also the production's director, keeps tightly under wraps for all but the concluding moments of the 70-minute running time. Along the way, of course, he imparts a few key facts—or at least what appear to be facts. Cathy (LuPone) has been incarcerated for 35 years for killing a police officer, and Ann (Winger) is charged with determining whether she deserves to at last be released. Ann does not believe Cathy's insistence that she's surrendered her life to Jesus Christ and wishes only to live out the remainder of her years performing acts of selflessness with cloistered nuns. But she's willing to overlook it if—and only if—Cathy reveals the whereabouts of her one-time accomplice, Althea, which is information Cathy is adamant she does not have.

Many playwrights might have trouble keeping a premise this thin upright, even if only for slightly more than an hour, but Mamet never falters. Yes, there's his dialogue, and whether it's about sex, God, or the role society plays as the ultimate arbiter between guilt and innocence, it's rich with the subversive brutality you'd expect from the writer of American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow, and Glengarry Glen Ross (which is slated to reopen in revival next week). Beyond that, however, Mamet constantly releases pieces of new data that change how we view both women and their actions. Which is the aggressor and which is the victim at any given point depends on a vast array of factors, your own interpretation of the current state of events being at the top of the list: Some scenes, particularly the last, take on chillingly different depths depending on who you think is lying or telling the truth.

This kind of uncertainty, deceptively laid out in front of a morally binary backdrop, is the kind of thing that Mamet has always done best. (It was a key feature of his outstanding last new Broadway play, Race, as well.) But there's quite a bit more going on here. Even while keeping the discussion between Cathy and Ann bracingly—even uncomfortably—personal, Mamet tightly weaves their behavior together with an examination of the eternal sparring match between the state and the individual. This forces you to also consider, and reconsider (perhaps multiple times), whether it's possible for either to go too far in pursuit of truth, justice, reconciliation, or retribution. Being challenged to rethink your own perceptions and prejudices in that light is a refreshing thrill of the sort that has otherwise been in short supply so far this season.

Debra Winger
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This same aspect also hurts The Anarchist—or, to be more precise, scrapes up its knees a bit. Mamet's most satisfying paint-peelers are the ones that strike a precise balance between overt messages and the implicit internal effects thereof. It's why, for example, the climax of Oleanna fascinates, frustrates, and enrages in one fell swoop: As with the recent Superstorm Sandy, two systems collide at precisely the best moment to achieve precisely the worst possible results. Here, that final extra layer of combustion never completely comes, leaving Cathy and Ann's confrontation feeling more distant, almost more theoretical, than it probably should. Yes, each woman has sound reasons for keeping her emotions in check, but the tension gets sufficiently high at a couple of key points that it's almost too insurmountable a challenge to accept that a larger flame isn't kindled.

Even so, what is present finds full expression in Mamet's quietly explosive staging, which contrasts the raging humanity of the story against the harshly institutional setting of Patrizia von Brandenstein's stark office set beneath Jeff Croiter's piercing lights, and particularly the actresses' performances. LuPone does her finest, and most restrained, Broadway work in more than a decade, infusing Cathy with palpable angst and anger that seem destined to burst through her thickened skin. Yet these attributes are tempered by an oddly casual serenity that unquestionably imparts the impression that this is a woman who, for better or worse, is at peace with herself. You therefore believe both necessary halves of the equation, and are left guessing until the climactic revelations—and perhaps beyond—what her true motives are.

If LuPone's Cathy is a creature of pure instinct, opposite her is the paragon of order. Winger's work is more subtle than LuPone's, and confined by her character to a narrower range, but no less involving. Projecting the mien of a deadly serious businesswoman, she radiates the proper authority for someone who holds another's life in her hands. But Ann's usually squelched hard-sell demeanor slowly appears and begins taking over her personality, evolving into someone just as potentially dangerous as Cathy—but someone who could cause even more trouble, as she has the rule of law on her side. Winger expertly negotiates the transformation from matron to monster, proving how little difference there is between good and bad intentions.

That's the real point of the evening, and much of what makes it so compelling: To whom does the title really refer? There's no way to know for sure, as circumstances, of all kinds, can easily make sinners into saints and the best of people into the most evil of souls. What comes after, Mamet argues, is even more important, because not all changes can (or should be) permanent. Mamet may have made sharper versions of the who's right/who's wrong arguments elsewhere (in at least Oleanna and Race), but its unforgiving look at whether the governmental cure is always (or ever) better than the social disease that spawned it makes The Anarchist is one of his most trenchant and timely offerings ever.

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