The law? “Two sides hire two opposing whores to testify. The jury picks the fellow in the better-cut suit.” Psychiatry? “We are paid for the ability to keep a straight face while accomplishing little or nothing.” Journalism? A “loathsome business,” like all the rest. Love? That doesn’t come out looking so hot either.
As our current Commander-in-Chief might say, “It’s rigged!”
If that’s your worldview, you’ll find a sympathetic soapbox in Mamet’s The Penitent—a sour and ultimately confounding morality tale with few sweeteners to cut the acidity – which premieres with the Atlantic Theater Company, at the Linda Gross Theater. For the rest, it’s a bitter trip into a dark psyche.
Mamet’s hero is Charles (Chris Bauer), a middle-aged psychiatrist who finds himself, by his own account, the “villain” of a perceived witch hunt in the press and the courts after he’s implicated in an act of terrible violence by one of his patients. The fire starter is the patient’s accusation—a misunderstanding, apparently— that Charles is a homophobe.
From the beginning, we’re led to be complicit in Charles’ sense of victimhood, and supportive of his resistance to comply with the powers that be. They want him to testify in court in defense of his patient, but despite the protests of his beleaguered wife, Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon) and his confidant and lawyer, Richard (Jordan Lage), he refuses. His defense, time and again, is his “oath.” His responsibility as a doctor, he’d have us believe, is to not help his patient.
Initially, his justification may largely be a matter of professional standards and ethics, but as the play proceeds, his logic teeters and Charles becomes entrenched in what increasingly seems like toxic self-righteousness. Consequently, his conversations with his wife and his friend—always tête-à-têtes—become circular and increasingly antagonistic, and his life gradually crumbles.
As Kath, Pidgeon gives a strange, robotic reading of strange, robotic dialogue. Her interactions with Charles, therefore, have the sputtering, spurting awkwardness of a car struggling to start. Lage fares better as Richard, and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. gives a brief, assured performance as an attorney who interrogates Charles and destabilizes his shaky ethical foundation. Their scene together is one of the most intriguing and smoothly executed in the show. Charles’ recent religious awakening, we learn from it, may be more important to his actions than previously understood.
The play is 90 minutes long, and far too much of that time is spent rearranging Tim Mackabee’s sparse set—a table and two chairs—for reasons that never quite pay off. There’s also an intermission, which serves no discernible end.
What remains is a series of linguistic back and forths whose solutions are elusive and insufficiently intriguing.
The trajectory of The Penitent might bear some resemblance to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, if Charles were a more consistent character. Throughout, it’s not certain to what extent we should root for him, and by the end, when Mamet unveils a major twist, there’s not enough time to recalibrate our sympathies. What, in the end, does Charles feel he’s done wrong? And to what extent has he repented? Ultimately, audiences may feel that rather than going on a journey with Mamet, they’ve merely gone around in circles.