In David Mamet’s newest play, a psychiatrist sees his career and marriage thrown into flux after he refuses to testify on behalf of a former patient who has done something horrible. “The Penitent,” which includes among its quartet of stars the writer’s wife, is having its world premiere at the Atlantic.
Mamet’s play is often a jumble of non-cohesive ideas, but it still holds together better than recent pieces such as “The Anarchist” and “China Doll.” Viewed as an indictment of journalism or the law—take your pick—“The Penitent” is timely and exciting and, in the best of ways, awfully depressing.
Chris Bauer—he was paunchy local cop Andy Bellefleur on HBO’s “True Blood”—excels as Charles, the analyst whose gay former charge has committed a spree killing. Throughout “The Penitent,” we’re witness to Charles’s conflict over his allegiance to the Hippocratic oath and its fraught intermingling with religious law.
As the trial approaches, Charles is driven into a corner. Should he follow what he perceives to be the word of God, and not disclose things done in trust? Or take the advice of Kath, his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon), who is happy in her undisturbed bourgeois life and wants the episode behind both of them?
Pidgeon, the British-American actress and songwriter who is married to the playwright, employs the characteristic halting staccato of the author’s well-known personas, though she’s on a different page from her co-stars. Jordan Lage is nice as Charles’s lawyer, who is eager to give his client legal advice without venturing into sticky moral territory.
The play’s finest moments are provided by Lawrence Gilliard Jr., who appears too briefly as the murder suspect’s mercenary defense attorney. (At the risk of going off on a tangent, it’s thrilling to see Gilliard, a former actor on “The Walking Dead,” with both legs intact. Google “Gareth” and “cannibalism” if you need that clarified.)
Mamet crams interesting, if overused notions into the story. Do we need another drama dissecting Leviticus? At the same time, his apparent disgust for journalism and the American legal system are employed to great use—he manages in a short time to reinforce suspicions that justice always goes to the man “in the suit with the best cut.”
“The Penitent” clocks in at 80 minutes, with intermission. I could locate no dramatic purpose for an interruption in the middle of such a short play. Overall, my response here was warm-ish. Some themes pop up like a muddled game of socioreligious whack-a-mole, but the play itself entertains and boasts a variety of interesting performances.
“The Penitent,” through March 19 at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St. Tickets: Starting at $75, via atlantictheater.org or OvationTix at 866-811-4111.
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