The beloved David Mamet has penned another anti-establishment, Mamet-speaky play that asks puzzling moral questions and entraps the protagonist in a dilemma for the ages. With The Penitent at the Atlantic Theater Company, the results are often fun and impressive, but it ultimately falls flat.
An unseen character—referred to only as “the boy”—has committed a terrible crime. “The boy” happens to be a patient of Charles (played by Chris Bauer), a psychoanalyst who is losing faith in his profession while dabbling in Judaism. With his reputation on the line, Charles is dragged into “the boy’s” court proceedings, but refuses to relent to authorities – ostensibly in the name of the hippocratic oath. His wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon) suffers massive fallout from Charles’ stubbornness, while his lawyer Richard (Jordan Lage) and an unnamed defense attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) seem to outwit Charles at every turn by employing snaky arguments about the law, the Bible, and the medical profession.
Naturally, Mamet’s signature punctuated dialogue is present throughout The Penitent, which calls for a suspension of disbelief if you’re not already a fan of his—though if you’re seeing the show, you probably are. The material is dense with rapid-fire zingers that pull you deeper and deeper into nihilistic rabbit holes: What is mental illness, even? To believe in the Bible, does one have to believe in it absolutely? Which is morally superior—the law, or medical integrity? Events challenge Charles to answer these impossible questions while his world crumbles.
Bauer (True Blood, Survivor’s Remorse) handles the difficult lead role capably, deflecting each attack with believable vulnerability, stubborn pride, and uncomfortable acts of self-preservation. Lage (Race, Ghost Stories) plays a smarmy lawyer who mercifully slows down the pace of this turbo-charged, 80-minute play just when it needs it the most.
The show-stealer is Gilliard Jr. who makes a huge impact in his sole scene as Bauer’s refreshing adversary. As the defense attorney, he takes full, charismatic command of the deposition, setting traps and relishing in a complicated lawyerly chess game. With every arrogant flip of his tie and intellectual blow he rains upon the impotent Charles, Gilliard is undeniably fun to watch.
Yet, there are deep flaws in The Penitent. It stings a bit to watch the actors move furniture around during every scene transition like they’re trapped in a high school production. The plot gets a bit predictable and calculated, employing old school reveal devices.
Woe betide the writer tasked with criticizing a legend like Mamet, let alone his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon (The Winslow Boy, Phil Spector) but, there’s just no getting around it: Pidgeon’s performance in The Penitent is an alarmingly weak link. To be fair, her task is a monumental one. While the men get to intellectualize Charles’ dilemma with razor wit and blasé logic, the wife Kath bears all the emotional consequences. She is the panicky, clueless victim of Charles’ choices; the frail woman whose ego and trajectory is—rather preposterously for 2017—wrapped up entirely in her husband’s decisions. Unfortunately, Pidgeon appears disconnected from her lines throughout The Penitent. Her high-stress delivery and emphasis on diction is unnatural, distracting, and one-note. There’s little to no chemistry between she and Bauer, the only person she—and everyone else—interacts with onstage. If The Penitent was armed with an actress who brought a little more believability and range to the role, or if the female role was simply written better, it’s possible that the climax may not have devolved so completely into “yeah right, seriously?” territory – which it does.
Starring: Chris Bauer, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Jordan Lage, Rebecca Pidgeon
Written by: David Mamet
Directed by: Neil Pape
Through: March 26 at the Atlantic Theater Company