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A CurtainUp Review
The Penitent

"I was covered with shame and tears for things past and yet had at the same time a secret surprising joy at the prospect of becoming a true penitent.— quote from Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, which inspired the title of David Mamet's morality play.
The Penitent
Where oh where is the David Mamet of the cutting edge plays associated with his name? What happened to the memorable characters and ever timely themes that won him a Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominations for Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988)? And what happened to the sparkle of The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity and American Buffalo that first made him the go-to playwright for that special theater experience? And where is the playwright whose past and current works — the top-of-the-line and even lesser ones — that prompted me to add him to Curtainup's Playwrights' Album Playwrights' Album.

Well, Mr. Mamet is still writing. And with The Penitent he has returned to his home base, the Atlantic Theater which he co-founded. With a director and three actors' who've been long time prime interpreters of his style on board, it should be a triumphant homecoming.

But alas, while the play's seven pas de deux scenes have the actors speak in familiar Mametian rhythms, what once had snap, crackle and pop now feels unnatural, forced and, yes, boring. Despite his affinity for Mamet, director Neil Pepe's staging doesn't help. Chris Bauer, as the main character who's always on stag fares best, and his scenes with Jordan Large, another Mamet acolyte, come closest to being compelling; however, not enough so to rescue this from not just minor but painfully disappointing Mamet territory.

That said, my last update of our Playwright Album's Mamet chapter required a major update. That update went back nine years, when two major revivals of the top tier Mamet plays, Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo, were on Broadway and another, Oleana, was headed there.

Mamet was clearly more than ever a superstar. Revivals of his plays, that in their original permutations were an actor's ticket to fame, now had no problem casting actors with established ticket selling reputations. A new Mamet play like his November, even though bottom rather than top drawer, could open on Broadway and stay afloat for a reasonably successful stay.

I couldn't think of a living playwright as prolific and in so many areas of the cultural spectrum, except perhaps Harold Pinter. Clearly, at age 60, Mamet's creative biological clock was still ticking. I consequently anticipated that our Mamet backgrounder would continue to require updates for new works as well as noteworthy revivals.

Unfortunately, Mamet's last two Broadway outings, did not add any new jewels to the playwright's crown. Despite Debra Winger and Patti LuPone above the marquee, The Anarchist was practically dead on arrival, and closed in less than a month.

Two seasons ago, China Doll arrived on Broadway with the double cachet of Mamet and Al Pacino. It was less depressing and more entertaining, but again sub-prime Mamet, as well as sub-prime Pacino.

Yet Mamet still generates enough interest for the Atlantic Theater's Main stage to be packed, as it was when I was there last Friday. But the more intimate setting and and welcome absence f star-casting hoopla, The Penitent has nevertheless put the playwright into "3 strikes and you're out" free fall

So just why is this the fatal third strike for a playwright I've always found stimulating? Let me count the ways.
Frankly, The Penitent is less a play than a series of arguments designed to stick it to the unethical behavior in the legal, psychiatric, media and religious community. (President Trump isn't the only one with a dark view of America's institutions). Mr. Mamet's conservative, drum pounding religiosity seems to have overtaken his ability to excite and electrify.

The play's pivot, Charles (Chris Bauer) is a psychiatrist whose refusal to testify in behalf of a notorious teenaged gay killer threatens his career and his marriage. He's neither sympathetic nor very interesting. By combining his struggle to be true to his Hippocratic oath as well as his recent rededication to long abandoned Judaism, the playwright has turned Charles into a Job like figure. Scene by tedious scene (with his wife, his lawyer and the killer's lawyer), we see him suffer another assault on his beliefs. When Mamet opts to play one of his typical surprise card tricks, it comes too late and unconvincingly. It's that ending, however, that is apparently meant to justify an unusual for a 75-minute play intermission. An unnecessary and ineffective subplot involving Charles's lawyer and his wife may be taken as a sign that Mamet was aware that his play needed more dramatic impact.

While Bauer as Charles and Lage as Richard his lawyer, are okay, the same can't be said for Rebecca Pigeon who's Charles's wife Kath, as well as the real life Mrs. Mamet. Lawrence Gilliard Jr, as the killer's lawyer, simply seems miscast.

As no one on stage has overcome the script's weaknesses, neither have the usually outstanding Neil Pepe or his designers. The between scenes transitions are clunky. Set designer Tim Mackabee's basically bare bones set reflects a script that also comes up bare bones in terms of characters and issues we can really care about.
As a working editor, I was struck by the fact that our anti-hero's downfall begins with a typo —he mistyped a word in the headline of an article for a professional publication, accidentally substituting "adaptation" for "aberration." Too bad Charles and his editor didn't follow the copy editing rule about having at least five pairs of eyes examine a script before publication. Of course, if that rule had been observed, this play might never have happened. On the other hand, it might have been given some more thought by its creator.

For our David Mamet Playwrights' Album Chapter with links to plays by him that we've reviewed, go here.

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The Penitent by David Mamet
Directed by artistic director Neil Pepe
Cast: Lawrence Gilliard Jr.(Attorney), Chris Bauer (Charles), Jordan Lage (Richard), Rebecca Pidgeon (Kath)
Scenic design by Tim Mackabee
Costume design by Laura Bauer
Lighting design by Donald Holder
Stage Manager: Mary Kathryn Flynt
Running time: 75 minutes with 1 intermission
Atlantic Theater Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street
From 2/08/17; opening 2/17/18; closing 3/26/17
Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Sunday evening performance 7pm: 2/12, 2/19, 3/5 Wednesday matinees 2pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on March 3rd

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