By: Isa Goldberg
Victim or victimizer? In David Mamet’s new play The Penitent, off Broadway at The Atlantic Theater Company, a mass murderer, whom we never meet, is the central figure. But he’s not the one who is on trial here, anyway. It’s his psychiatrist, Charles (Chris Bauer), who becomes the object of the inquisition that surrounds the murder of ten innocent people. In the metaphorical sense, Charles, his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon), and his attorney (Jordan Lage) count foremost among the triage. Their lives are ruined.
The issue here is less about gun control, but rather about the tragedy of a society in which so much is deregulated, while so much else suffers from rigid regulation. So, what are we regulating or deregulating, and why? Who has the right to hold guns? What are our responsibilities as citizens? What are we free to believe and enact? Is good faith and loyalty meaningful? What is law and what is morality?
While these issues emerge clearly through an intriguing plot, it would be unfair to give too much away. But the fact that Mamet is raising these questions with us makes us party to the inquisition, and therefore partners in the crime. This is one of his most thought provoking plays, and the dialogue is especially rich. Noticeably, there are very few four-letter invectives here.
Capturing the rhythms of Mamet’s clipped overlapping lines of dialogue with utmost finesse, his long time collaborator, director Neil Pepe is at the top of his game. Building complex relationships, peeling away at triangulation and betrayal with a formidable eye to revealing the truth.
Tim Mackabee’s set design is as simple and unobtrusive as possible, indicating to us with minimalist elements, the space where these events take place. Given that they all occur in the here and now, we may simply conclude that it’s any space, all space, and perhaps a space anyone and everyone could inhabit.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Bauer brings a soulful thoughtfulness to his role, which makes the talky nature of the play manageable. And if he isn’t the most honest card player in this game, it’s pretty clear that his attorney, a straight-faced Jordan Lage, isn’t either.
Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as the attorney who needs to identify guilt (in the case of a mass murder, where the murderer is caught with the gun in his hand?) is outrageous and totally credible in his snazzy lawyer’s garb. The most opaque and disturbing character, however, is Kath, a role which Rebecca Pidgeon embodies in a most intriguing way.
The Penitent ***1/2
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 W 20th St, New York, NY 10011
Phone: (866) 811-4111 Photos: Doug Hamilton