What's happened to David Mamet? Remember the good old days when he wrote muscular, expletive-filled dramas instead of lifeless, didactic polemics with stick-figure characters? It's hard to believe that the author of the Pulitzer-winning Glengarry Glen Ross and hard-hitting dramas like Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow could have penned The Anarchist, a painfully didactic all-female two-hander.
The Anarchist stars musical theater superstar Patti LuPone as Cathy, a lesbian and former political radical who has served 35 years in prison due to a botched robbery that ended in murder. Cathy is now attempting to persuade Ann, a no-nonsense, unemotional warden played by Academy Award nominee Debra Winger, to finally grant her parole.
This simple setup surely could have made for a volatile, confrontational drama. But the 70-minute play is little more than a meandering and academic debate that is very hard to follow. While I will not spoil the ending, let's just say that it's quick, random and heavy-handed, much like the rest of the play.
Based on their stiff, monotonic and restrained performances, one can't but wonder if Mamet, who directed the play himself in a spare and plain style, encouraged LuPone and Winger to hold back as much as possible and move as little as possible, making the production even more of a bore.
Much has been made in recent years about Mamet's sudden conversion to political conservatism. Frankly, I could care less that Mamet probably voted for Romney instead of Obama. What actually concerns me is how one of the most influential American playwrights of the past 40 years has been turning in such dry and undercooked material lately.
Critics and audiences alike can’t be faulted for contrasting The Anarchist with Mamet's better works, especially since just a few feet away on the very same block is a starry revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s expose of the ruthlessness and desperation of an unscrupulous pack of real estate salesmen.
Unlike The Anarchist, which will close after just two official weeks of performances at a total financial loss, Glengarry has grossed over $1 million a week during its unusually long preview period thanks to Al Pacino’s star power. Interestingly enough, Glengarry is being produced by the same people behind The Anarchist. Win some, lose some, I guess.
While Daniel Sullivan’s staging of Glengarry is unquestionably better than The Anarchist, the production is marred by an abundance of over-the-top performances.
Pacino plays Shelly Levene, a former high seller once known as “The Machine” who is now on the verge of being canned due to a dry streak. Two years ago, Pacino delivered a deeply felt, idiosyncratic performance as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, also directed by Sullivan. While Pacino delivers the same wild theatricality that characterized his Shylock, here it comes off as excessive, awkward and rather kooky. Furthermore, Pacino’s overly slow line readings drain the play’s fast pace.
Other cast members follow suit with similarly excessive performances. John C. McGinley (Scrubs) lets loose with rage as Moss, who concocts the idea of sticking back against his employer through criminal means, while Richard Schiff (The West Wing) overemphasizes knees-shaking nervousness as Aaronow.
But the production does contain a few convincing performances. As hotshot Ricky Roma, the role that Pacino played in the play’s film version, Bobby Cannavale positively oozes with style and a cool, devilish charm. And as the office manager, the one who doles out the “premium leads” that could ultimately lead to a sale, David Harbour shows off the character’s frustration in such a well-rounded manner that he actually gains our sympathy.