The Penitent, David Mamet’s latest play, is about the ethical dilemmas facing a psychiatrist whose patient has gone on a killing spree. At least that’s what it seems to be about, but audiences might well identify with the psychiatrist’s wife when she says to him: “You must be holding something back. Or else I’m stupid.”
In an austere world premiere production at the Atlantic Theatre Company Off-Broadway, Charles (Chris Bauer) refuses to speak to the press about his former client, nor testify on his behalf at his trial, because – as he tells both his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon) and his attorney Richard (Jordan Lage) — saying anything would violate the oath of confidentiality. Partially as a result, when the play begins, the press and the public apparently have already turned against him. I say partially, because it might also be in part because “the boy” (as the killer is called) is gay, and accused Charles of being anti-gay; the accusation was given credence when the newspaper reported that Charles referred to homosexuality as an ‘aberration.’” But the word Charles used in his cited academic paper was “adaptation,” not “aberration” – homosexuality as an adaptation. The newspaper got it wrong. This wasn’t just a mere typo, Charles believes. The press needed to cast him as a villain, since it needs villains, and the old villain – the killer – was now old news.
Charles’s – and Mamet’s – cynical attitude is not limited to the press. He also takes on the medical and legal professions. Indeed, Charles says to his attorney Richard, any professional is “paid for the ability to keep a straight face while accomplishing little or nothing.”
If Charles thinks so little of his profession, why does he insist on upholding his oath of confidentiality? It’s a nagging question, especially since his stubborn silence is doing him harm, and also negatively affecting both the boy and his own family (as his wife informs him repeatedly.)
Ah, well that you ask this. It turns out there may be….other reasons for his refusal.
In The Penitent, Mamet takes on big questions, probing the obligations, contradictions and distinctions between moral, religious and professional codes of conduct. There is an entire scene between Charles and a character called only The Attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., his only scene) that would not be completely out of place in a Bible studies class. At the same time, Mamet has structured The Penitent so that information is parceled out in stingy pieces. Some of this is surely for dramatic effect, particularly a revelation at the end that is undoubtedly meant to knock us out. But this approach winds up undercutting his thematic explorations; if we’re confused as to why two characters are talking to one another at all, for example, we’re less likely to pay close attention to their intellectual arguments. And that ending (which I won’t reveal) is not only implausible to the point of self-parody; it negates or at least clouds all the intellectual debate that’s gone before it.
It doesn’t help that the four characters – presented in eight brief one-on-one scenes (between Charles and his wife; Charles and his attorney Richard; Charles and the attorney; Charles and his wife again) — speak in short, stilted half-sentences. This is a style of dialogue that Mamet employed (albeit speeded up) to great effect in such seminal plays as Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed the Plow. Perhaps it worked better then because he was writing about foul-mouthed hustlers and grifters, rather than professionals whose livelihood depends on their being articulate. Or maybe, as some suggest (including Mamet himself), the playwright has lost his mojo.
I resist this conclusion, as being glib and unkind, as I wrote in my review of China Doll in 2015
The Penitent is better than China Doll, and than The Anarchist of 2012, even though it has no star on the level of Al Pacino or Patti LuPone to reward the audience for their struggles. The four-member cast of The Penitent has impeccable credentials – both Chris Bauer and Lawrence Gilliard Jr are alumni of The Wire, one of the best TV shows ever made; Lage is a veteran of seven Broadway plays, four of them by Mamet; Rebecca Pidgeon is Mamet’s wife and frequent interpreter. They do what they can with their roles, given some restrictive directorial choices by director Neil Pepe. (Pidgeon does not fare as well as the others.) The set is even more spare than the direction — a table, two chairs, a folded newspaper, an occasional coffee mug. But there are exchanges in The Penitent that are accessible and stimulating. Yes, there are also holes in logic and clarity in the play — as there are in life. Admittedly, in life, there tends to be more furniture.
The Penitent is on stage at the Atlantic Theater (336 West 20th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, New York, N.Y. 10011) through March 26, 2017.
By David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Scenic design by Tim Mackabee, costume design by Laura Bauer, lighting design by Donald Holder. Featuring Chris Bauer, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Jordan Lage, Rebecca Pidgeon. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.