Jordan Lage as Richard and Chris Bauer as
Charles photos by Doug hamilton
By Ron Cohen
journalism, the law and the Old Testament all get knocked pretty hard in David
Mamet’s The Penitent. Summing up the play’s general attitude early on,
the protagonist declares, “Human nature is evil.”
misanthropic leanings can make crackling good drama, as witnessed in such plays
as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross. Here, however, the
effect is blunted, as the characters seem to be inhabiting a vacuum, existing
only to debate or react to their views or feelings on the matter at hand. There
is scant reference to any actual time or place.
The matter at
hand concerns the accumulating woes of a psychoanalyst, Charles, stemming from
his refusal to testify in defense of one of his patients, a young man being
tried for murder. While the patient is never seen and circumstances are never
fully revealed, we eventually learn he has fatally shot 10 people. The patient,
a homosexual, has declared in a letter that Charles’ refusal is homophobic, and
a newspaper investigating the story, has found a scholarly treatise in which,
the newspaper reports, Charles labeled homosexuality an “aberration.” As the
drama proceeds, public outrage mounts against him, his practice is wrecked, and
his wife, Kath, becomes increasingly distraught, heading for a nervous
It turns out,
though, that “aberration” was a typo. What Charles wrote was that homosexuality
is an “adaptation.” He’s suing for libel.
Charles’ lawyer, Richard, tells Charles that newspapers are too powerful to
sue. The lawyer vainly argues that Charles should settle for a retraction,
which would include his statement of acceptance. Richard further contends that
Charles should testify and turn over his records dealing with the patient’s
treatment. This Charles also refuses to do on the basis of patient-doctor
confidentiality and his deepened understanding of the Hippocratic oath. He has
turned to religion to fortify his beliefs, and is consulting with a rabbi, who
like the murderer, never appears on stage.
Chris Bauer as Charles and Lawrence Gilliard
Jr. as The Attorney in The Penitent.
stance is further questioned in a deposition session with an attorney
representing the murderer. The attorney – quoting the Old Testament’s
condemnation of homosexuality – contends that Charles’ new-found religiosity
has brought his homophobia to the fore. The attorney also bombards Charles’
ethics with the fact that many times in the past he has testified in trials as
an expert witness for pay, a practice the attorney criticizes as fraudulent.
All this pummeling is further causing Charles to doubt his own profession as
one that deals in diagnosis rather than cure.
If at this
point you are still intrigued, be warned that there comes a spoiler in one of
two last-minute revelations.
his story in a series of two- person conversations: Charles with his wife;
Charles with Richard, and Charles with the defense attorney. As the arguments
get chewed over and over, things begin to seem pretty repetitious, despite the
play’s running time of something less than 90 minutes, including an
intermission. In this Atlantic Theater Company production, the formal staging
by director Neil Pepe, Atlantic’s artistic director, on Tim Mackabee’s spare,
angular set resembling an interrogation room, further heightens the sense of
debate. Like debaters, actors sometimes cross to different spots on the stage
for no apparent reason.
On the plus
side, Mamet’s dialogue – whatever you may feel about his theses – impresses
with command of language and the ability to make clear his character’s points
of view, as circuitous as they may be. He’s also writing without the
oft-satirized reliance on the scatological that colors his earlier plays. And
the actors, for the most part, deliver the dialogue with the kind of conviction
that makes you keep listening. Chris Bauer deepens Charles’s dilemma with
fitful surges of despair and anger, while Jordan Lage’s Richard maintains a
convincing and complimentary lawyer-like gravitas. Lawrence Gilliard Jr. imbues
the defense attorney with an entertaining smidgen of sadism as he interrogates
however, is Rebecca Pidgeon’s take on Charles’ wife. While she varies the
volume, her lines are delivered almost uniformly in an urgent monotone, making
her sound like she has been completely traumatized from the start. It seems
aimed at deterring any emotional investment from the audience. However,
Pidgeon, who is Mamet’s wife, may be the cast member most in tune with what may
be the author’s intent: to prod us into thinking without cluttering the process
up with emotion.
the Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th