David Mamet Goes to Prison


The French word “conscience” can mean either “consciousness” or “conscience.” Much of modern thought grew from the awareness that such ambiguities run deep in Western culture. Facts are verifiable; words are always masks. Enter, onto this doubt-laden landscape, David Mamet, with a desk, two chairs, and two actresses. Commence, in an improbable context, a dense, cloudy, fascinating new work, The Anarchist (Golden Theatre).

Cathy (Patti LuPone) is a convict applying for parole. Ann (Debra Winger) is a prison official, whose recommendation to the parole board will determine whether Cathy goes free. This conversation occurs annually. Cathy has been jailed for 35 years: She belonged to a violent ’60s radical group involved in the cold-blooded murder of two police officers. Ann, who has regularly handled her applications, is leaving her job.

The two women face off in what’s presumably Ann’s office. Mamet’s script says only “a desk and two chairs”; Patrizia von Brandenstein’s set shows a more elaborately furnished space. The director, also Mamet, seems to view the play very differently from its author. Problematic results may lie ahead.

Cathy, raised wealthy and Jewish, claims to have found salvation through Christ. She wants freedom, first, so that she can ask her dying father’s forgiveness, and second, to “work for the Sisters,” presumably a religious order. She has written a book describing her conversion. She proposes to renounce both any possible royalties and the immense inheritance she’ll receive when her father dies.

Ann’s questioning keeps us from taking what Cathy says at face value. A book, however convincingly written, might simply be a ploy to make Cathy look parole-worthy. A nebulously poetic remark in a letter to her attorney might be a coded message to her former lesbian lover, Althea, another ex-radical still at large and wanted. Cathy’s version of Christianity—which doesn’t include forgiveness for several male ex-radicals who testified against her—looks, to Ann, dishearteningly like the blind subservience to an abstract idea that previously led Cathy to political violence, only with “Christ” replacing “The People.” Has Cathy ever, in fact, learned to accept responsibility for her actions?

“Who are The People?” Ann asks. Do they include the families of the two murdered officers, waiting outside Ann’s office, as they do every year on this date, to demand that she reject Cathy’s application for parole? Ann is troubled. Not only must she balance Cathy’s claims against those of “the families,” but also her own feelings, and her desire to do good, against what she perceives as the facts of Cathy’s case.

“I want to save you,” she tells Cathy, who has already expressed, truthfully or not, an equivalent desire to save Ann. But Cathy has perceived, under Ann’s composure, a prurient interest in prisoners’ lesbianism; it’s hard to gauge whether she’s offering Ann religion or sex. Equally, it’s hard to determine Ann’s precise function: She seems by turns a prison bureaucrat, a social psychologist measuring Cathy’s rehabilitation, and a moral judge evaluating her spiritual state.

And maybe she’s all those things. Thick with debate over word meanings, knotty with hesitations and repetitions, the constantly shifting texture of Mamet’s script poses major challenges to the ear and mind. Running less than 70 minutes, for many it will barely seem, at Broadway prices, an evening’s worth of entertainment. Yet for some, its solidity might make it a lifelong preoccupation. A cat-and-mouse game played by two cats pretending to be mice, it hovers constantly on the verge of becoming an open catfight. Yet even when, at its climax, it nearly does so, the ostensible revelations it displays might still be ploys and not hard truths. Even in this extreme context, it says, ambiguity is the condition of our being. “Stone walls,” somebody once wrote to another Althea, “do not a prison make.”

Staging ambiguity has its own terrors. Director Mamet, eager to serve his author, pushes almost all emotional expression deep below the surface. The result conveys flatness, or, worse, vagueness, where playwright Mamet offers dense, seething specificity. Winger, crisply proficient, seems to evanesce at all emotional cues; LuPone, often powerful, equally often lets her voice and presence drift upstage. A more intimate space, a different directorial hand, might have made this the exciting experience the script warrants. Expect subsequent productions.