by Michael Bracken
No one does rapid fire dialogue like David Mamet, as his latest offering, The Penitent, attests. Currently receiving its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, Mamet’s drama bristles with tension as it focuses on Charles (Chris Bauer), a psychiatrist whose patient (the “boy”) has murdered eight people. He’s trying to explain to his wife, Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon), why he can’t, in good conscience, make a statement to the press about the murders or his patient.
The back and forth between the couple has the cadence of machine gun fire, yet there’s also a deliberate quality to their discourse. Sentence fragments are hurled into the charged atmosphere with a rat-a-tat-tat that punctuates the frustration each feels with the other. Kath cannot, or at least does not, probably want to understand Charles’s moral dilemma. He is unwavering in his commitment to strictly construe his professional duty of silence. “I took an oath,” he says, and he will continue to say so throughout the play.
This being Mamet, it’s no surprise that there’s more to Charles’s quandary. The boy has vilified Charles in the press. He’s written a “manifesto,” claiming Charles is against him because he is gay. And the paper not only published the boy’s attack but quoted Charles as considering homosexuality an aberration. Except they misquoted him. Charles wrote a paper titled “Homosexuality Considered as an ‘Adaptation,’” not an “Aberration.”
Charles’s lawyer and friend, Richard (Jordan Lage), advises him to accept a settlement for his libel suit from the paper that would consist solely of a retraction. There would be no financial component, even though Charles’ career has been destroyed. Richard also suggests Charles testify for his former patient, and Charles once again takes the moral high road.
Mamet structures the first act as a series of one-on-ones, Charles and alternating sparring partners Richard and Kath. The verbal exchanges maintain their intensity up until intermission. Mamet’s writing is crisp but only as clear as he wants it to be, which is not very. That’s the point. These people are searching for clarity and there’s none to be found. The audience seeks clarity as well, but it won’t get any until Mamet is ready. He’s got a surprise or two up his sleeve and he’ll reveal them in his own time. He certainly keeps our attention as we witness Charles’s downward spiral.
The playwright’s hand is less sure in Act II. The writing still has the razor sharp, staccato rhythm and fast pace as a different lawyer (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) asks Charles questions. It seems very much like a deposition, but there’s no attorney representing Charles, so it’s hard to say what’s transpiring. In this instance, the lack of clarity is a distraction: there’s no context. It’s still a great scene as Charles, warned earlier by Richard to stick to yes/no answers, waxes philosophical and plays into the lawyer’s deft hand.
Tim Mackabee’s spare set does double duty as Richard ‘s law office and Charles and Kath’s home with splendid economy. The single table, flanked by two chairs, gets moved back and forth according to the venue. The wood paneling is slightly more suggestive of an office but is generic enough to work in a residence as well. An angled hallway upstage, intriguingly lit by Donald Holder, beckons, but Charles doesn’t see the light.
No stranger to Mamet, director Neil Pepe never lets the intensity lag. He keeps his actors on their toes, resulting in a satisfyingly taut production. All four actors are in tune with the drama’s spirit, although Pidgeon has a vocal affectation that calls too much attention to itself.
The Penitent doesn’t quite make it to the finish line. Mamet plays his cards too close to the vest, with too many major revelations coming in the last five minutes of the piece. Still it’s an engrossing drama. Brilliantly on track for most of its length, its derailments don’t neutralize the vigor of its verbal choreography.
The Penitent. Through Sunday, March 19 at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.atlantictheater.org. 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission.
Photos: Doug Hamilton