When I first heard about “The Anarchist,” David Mamet’s play pitting Patti LuPone as an incarcerated violent radical against Debra Winger as her jailer, I immediately pictured the townhouse that blew up when I was a child. I remember walking by the demolished building and spotting a bookcase still full of books stuck on the outer wall of the adjoining building, two or three stories up. This was the family home of one of the bomb-makers of the Weather Underground; they had blown it up by accident, killing three of them. Two more, after being treated for their injuries, disappeared, becoming fugitives.
A decade later, one of those two women, Kathy Boudin, the daughter of a prominent attorney, participated in the robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Westchester in which two law enforcement officers were killed. She was arrested, pled guilty, and received a prison sentence of 20 years to life.
While she was in prison, her son was adopted by former Weatherman leader Bill Ayers, who became a professor of education in Chicago and figured prominently in an attack on candidate Barack Obama in 2008 presidential campaign.
It was this intriguing story that I assumed had inspired Mamet to write and direct “The Anarchist,” which imagines a meeting in which Cathy (LuPone), an inmate for 35 years for murdering two law enforcement officers during a robbery, is requesting from Ann (Winger), an unspecified official (Warden? Prosecutor?) that she finally be released on parole, in order to visit her dying father. Cathy has found Jesus, she says, and tries to bring Ann to the light. Ann wants Cathy to tell her the location of Althea, her long-ago accomplice, still fugitive and lover.
The hour-long play that Mamet has produced manages to disappoint on nearly every level. The actors do what they can, especially LuPone, who gives a master lesson in making something out of nothing. But Mamet gives them little but vagueness as a writer and as a director enforces a weird stylized stiltedness that we have seen from him before in movies such as “The Spanish Prisoner,” and plays like “Race,” which was on Broadway a few seasons back. (“Race” seemed thin at the time, but in light of “The Anarchist,” now comes off like “Around The World in 80 Days.”) The absence of any real drama is exceeded only by the pat ending, which would be rejected by the better TV police procedural shows as too stacked and gimmicky. But there is little satisfaction even in taking “The Anarchist” as an exercise in political philosophy. Putting aside how utterly unlikely the conversation between the two antagonists, it is a pompous affair with only intermittent insights, primarily marked by name-dropping and a lack of clarity.
The worst of “The Anarchist,” however is in imagining what the younger David Mamet would have made of such a complex, riveting real-life story.
The show has already announced it will close on December 16, two months earlier than its scheduled limited run.
At the John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street
Written and directed by David Mamet; sets and costumes by Patrizia von Brandenstein
.Cast: Patti LuPone (Cathy) and Debra Winger (Ann).
Running time: an hour with no intermission.
“The Anarchist” is now scheduled to end on December 16 (14 days after opening)