Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 26, $65
David Mamet has been having a tough time these past few years, earning less-than-stellar reviews for his last three Broadway plays, The Anarchist, China Doll, and a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross. Meanwhile, in a March 11, 2008, piece for the Village Voice entitled, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’” he publicly proclaimed, “I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.” It appears that no one’s mind is going to be changed by his latest show, The Penitent, continuing through March 26 at the Atlantic Theater, the company that he cofounded with William H. Macy in 1985. Chris Bauer (True Blood, Mamet’s Race) stars as Charles, a psychiatrist thrust into the public eye after a patient he refers to as “the boy” commits a heinous act. A newspaper article about the crime cites the boy’s anger at Charles for calling homosexuality an “aberration,” but Charles insists to his wife, Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon), and his lawyer, Richard (Jordan Lage), that the word he used in his published paper was “adaptation,” a typo that is now threatening his reputation and career. Charles is unwilling to accept the paper’s offer of a small retraction, so he decides to fight for the truth, despite the misgivings of Kath, Richard, and a Bible-quoting deposition lawyer (Lawrence Gilliard Jr. channeling Samuel L. Jackson).
The drama unfolds over a series of two-character scenes around the same desk and chairs, which are rearranged to indicate various locations in Tim Mackabee’s sparse set. Bauer is steadfast as Charles, seemingly a stand-in for Mamet himself, as Bauer sports the playwright’s trademark glasses and even his style of facial hair; in addition, Charles’s wife is portrayed by Mamet’s wife, Pidgeon, who speaks in an overly clear and precise manner, emphasizing her “t”s and “d”s, for example, in an annoying way. The dialogue is sharp if not as fast-paced or brutal as in so many Mamet works, and director Neil Pepe’s pacing is rather lazy as revelation after revelation comes to light, including a twist ending. The crucial fact involved really should have been revealed earlier but becomes merely an excuse to end the ninety-minute show, which also has an intermission. There are several very strong moments in The Penitent, primarily early on as Charles battles for his rights, but as the character finds himself more and more up against the wall and turning to religion for solace, the play devolves and is then just over, leaving too many unanswered questions. Mamet’s return to the Atlantic might not be quite the welcome homecoming the playwright and the audience were expecting.