The Penitent by David Mamet
Atlantic Theatre Company on 20th Street
BS Rating: B
BS on Show-Score: 85
At last, a new play by David Mamet that is worth experiencing. After his last two disappointing endeavors, The Anarchist and China Doll, I entered the Atlantic Theatre for The Penitent with some trepidation. But this new work is a well crafted exploration of ethics, responsibility and religious salvation.
Charles is a well-respected psychiatrist. A young gay patient of his has committed a heinous crime and Charles is struggling with the demands that are being made of him to testify in his patient’s behalf. The boy’s published ramblings have accused his analyst of homophobia and Charles’ dilemma is complicated by his desire to seek an apology from the newspaper that made these accusations public. His lawyer, a friend of both Charles and his wife, Kath, tries to give him sound and practical advice. While Charles agrees to settle with the news outlet, he adamantly defends the confidentiality of the records of his work with the disturbed young man and refuses involvement in the boy’s trial. He is torn by his sense of responsibility to the ethics of his profession, a new-found commitment to his Jewish religion, and a underlying sense of guilt that he feels for the boy’s murderous actions.
Mamet has intentionally not drawn full, three dimensional characters. The play is less about the personal lives and relationships of the three main characters, but more a sort-of sequence of debates, increasing in complexity as legal pressures mount. The play is structured as a series of brief scenes, each devoted to one of the ethical, religious, social or legal issues that the psychiatrist and his wife are forced to confront together and individually. Mamet draws these parleys into a complex set of interdependent arguments that engage the audience in an intellectual rather than an emotional empathy with the characters.
Neil Pepe’s direction, and the work of the designers, Tim Mackabee, Donald Holder, and Laura Bauer, keep the audience in a state of objectivity – we are involved with the ideas. While their impact on the people is not lost, it’s secondary. The set has a simple back wall and a table and two chairs that are rearranged by the actors between scenes. These changes in dim light take a hair longer than is needed, almost instructing the audience to detach themselves from what preceded and maintain their objectivity in evaluating what follows. The actors also adopt a deliberative, at times argumentative, style of delivery – they are not emotionless, they are just not playing for emotion. While this may sound dry and clinical, it’s not. The audience is drawn into these deliberations much as they might be drawn into a more traditional character-based development in a drama.
The play ends with the revelation of a major piece of hidden information that forces the audience to reevaluate every aspect of the arguments and actions previously presented. Usually, these late disclosures tie up the plot into a logical conclusion commonly referred to as a dénouement, or falling action that resolves or explains the outcome. But Mamet drops this “bomb-shell” and the lights go out – the play is over. He provides none of the debate over the ethical, moral or religious issues that must be completely reevaluated in light of this new information. The audience has a whole new perspective on everything that preceded without the benefit of an explication of those issues. It’s too easy to jump to a conclusion about the true nature and motivations of Charles; but just as the pre-revelation arguments were complex, so too are the post-revelation issues, even if Mr. Mamet fails to explore them. I guess they’re reserved for your walk to the subway and ride home.