Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: First preview of new Mamet play The Anarchist on Broadway, with Patti LuPone

The Anarchist
First preview, 13 November 2012
Golden Theatre, New York

There is a lot of buzz surrounding The Anarchist. Famed Broadway playwright David Mamet not only directs but he directs Patti LuPone, with whom he has a colourful 30-year past. Despite the hype, there are no fireworks – neither good nor bad – in this production. Mindful that this is only the first preview, there are significant kinks for the team to iron out before opening.

The play deals with heavy yet pertinent philosophical debates. Serving a life sentence in prison, Cathy (LuPone) makes a final plea to unsympathetic warden Ann (Debra Winger) for why she is sufficiently rehabilitated, in what becomes an intellectual battle about the necessity of the state over anarchy. Mamet’s work offers an enlightening engagement with the complex topics that come with such territory, like justice, faith, control and kindness.

Despite the compelling subject matter, the production fails to fully articulate its substance. It takes a long time to warm up, which is in large part due to the wordiness and awkward formality of the script. Both traits are textbook Mamet, but dozens of audience members didn’t settle into the play and left before curtain – which was particularly concerning considering the show only ran for 70 minutes without interval.

There is a stagnant nature to Winger and LuPone's performances. Both are robotic in their delivery (Winger more so than LuPone) to the point that it looks like a line run. The lack of variation in tonality and flow could be a sign of more time needed to settle into their characters, but is also likely a reflection of Mamet's deliberate creation of two clinical, almost emotionless characters. 

As it currently stands, the pair generate a strange energy; Winger as the warden is calm and bland to LuPone’s fidgety but somewhat sedated portrayal of prisoner, Cathy. They are chalk and cheese, only without the spark that you would expect from such antipodean characters. Drama stems from the language, not the performance (and certainly not the banal set and lighting design). While this may work stylistically, it makes for an unremarkable physical performance.

The Anarchist didn't thrill but it did stimulate. LuPone and Winger's performances were there but underdone, and it will be interesting to see the show post-previews when both have had time to roost. The play itself is intriguing and makes for an odd but interesting contribution to the current Broadway season.

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