Again with the whining! It would take a review longer than this space permits to explore how David Mamet, the great bard of the grifty underclass in early plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, turned into the Trumpy rage queen and billionaire-apologist of recent ones like the revolting one-percenter paranoiac fantasy China Doll. Like that 2015 Al Pacino vehicle, Mamet’s latest, The Penitent, which opens tonight at the Atlantic, spins a tornado of indignation from a ridiculous hiccup of a premise and drives it into the ground with overemphasis. In this case, instead of Big Government and its Bothersome Regulations, the villains are primarily psychiatry (“a farce”) and the legal system (“paid whores”), both of them relying on practitioners’ “ability to keep a straight face while accomplishing little or nothing.”
Still, as Mamet would have it, the press is even worse; in The Penitent we have our first Fake News play. For it seems that our protagonist, a doubting shrink named Charles, is being libeled. When a young gay client of his murders ten people during treatment, he refuses to testify at the trial, citing patient privilege. (This makes no sense, as it’s the client’s defense team that is asking him to testify.) In any case, a newspaper, digging into the story, quotes Charles as once having called homosexuality an “aberration” when he in fact called it an “adaptation.” Leaving aside that either word is objectionable — this play falls right into the Violent Queer narrative that has always been so strangely appealing to macho right-wingers — Mamet’s spin on the error is laughable. The press, which is universally in the business of reducing every “horrifying, complex act” to a myth containing “a monster and a victim,” quite willingly recasts the murderer as a victim of homophobia, and Charles as the monster for sticking to his Hippocratic oath.
We know that Charles is really the hero, though; he is kind to his distraught wife and has sought solace during his crisis by returning to the religion of his childhood. (So has Mamet.) He alludes to seeking guidance from a rabbi, and has apparently become very familiar with Leviticus. Still, by the time the murderer threatens to sue Charles for violating his civil rights as a gay man, it may be the Book of Job you think of. Set upon by the defense attorney, betrayed by his own counsel, and unable to protect his wife from the consequences of his heightened morality, he turns closer to God, becoming the penitent of the title in seeking forgiveness for having involved himself in the false religion of psychiatry. But the whole thing is a crock, and Mamet, despite the persecution complex, knows it. The truth comes out near the end, when — spoiler alert! — the entire story turns out to have been a McGuffin, thus sending the play Titanic-like into the icy ocean of irrelevance on which it had formerly merely heaved about nauseously.
As we are frequently being told these days, we need to reach across boundaries of political philosophy and try to understand one another. A contrarian voice in the familiarly liberal precincts of Off Broadway would thus not be unwelcome, if that voice represented a reasonably good-faith effort to work from real premises. But just as there is Fake News there are Fake Plays, and this is one. The overwrought credulity at its heart makes it impossible to engage. Even with that, it might make good theater if at least it entertained. But the worse tragedy of Mamet, more than his political conversion, is that his later works mostly bore and repel as plays. In The Penitent, the dialogue maintains the artillery rhythms of his early work but there is no sensible character motive behind it; it chases itself in circles and often sounds as if it were erratically transcribed from hackneyed genre movies. The cast, under Neil Pepe’s clumsy direction, doesn’t help much, in some cases weirdly trying to elevate it with fawncy diction and in others stuttering through it as if hoping to disguise its loathsomeness.
Oh, wait. Is it libel to call the play loathsome? Sue me.
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The first half of Will Eno’s 75-minute play Wakey, Wakey, which also opens tonight, is a neat summary of everything theatergoers either love or hate about Will Eno. I will write from the latter perspective. It is, like his Thom Pain (based on nothing), a rambling monologue of no apparent consequence. Like The Open House, it features a man in a wheelchair, portentously representing a broader existential dysfunction, perhaps of the universe or perhaps of the theater that reflects it. And like The Realistic Joneses, it is filled with amusing little word-whorls and passive-aggressive feints that sour even in the process of delivery. (“Never a dull moment,” the man says, then takes a long pause. “Maybe not never.”) Still, the man — whose name, the program tells us, is Guy — conveys a certain urgency about all this doodling, possibly the urgency of near-death. (He may be in a hospice.) In any case, he has brought with him a handful of notecards and some audiovisual accompaniment, which together suggest the kind of PowerPoint presentation Samuel Beckett might make if he were accidentally booked into an Amway convention. The topics, however absurd on the surface, all collapse into meditations on mortality; to bring home the point Eno even gives us a YouTube video of animals screaming. I may have been among them.
But then, halfway through, with the arrival of a character named Lisa, who seems to be an experienced end-of-life attendant, the tone flips. The struggle between insincerity and urgency that Guy has been enacting gives way, under Lisa’s gentleness, to something more direct and beautiful. Her complete acceptance of Guy, and her lack of any agenda except to help him enjoy whatever he is doing, acts as a balm on his anxiety, and ours. I felt my hostility toward the first half of Wakey, Wakey, with all its dull cuteness, beginning to melt, and I wondered if this was part of the play’s design. Even if it was, I would much rather have Lisa attend me in my hour of need than Eno.
Partly that’s because January LaVoy, who plays Lisa, is so radiantly warm onstage. She has a very light touch with the absurdity and manages to create that most difficult thing: a completely believable portrait of goodness. As Guy, Michael Emerson, though technically excellent, cannot get so far with his character, or not at any rate with Eno fussing over him as director. (Sam Gold, who directed The Realistic Joneses, and Oliver Butler, who directed The Open House, were more successful at rounding the central performances of those plays.) The bulk of Eno’s effort here seems to have gone into keeping the doodles from thudding, which they often do anyway. As usual at the Signature, where Eno is now completing a three-play residency, the physical production — from the haunting set (by Christine Jones) to the exquisitely subtle light (by David Lander) and sound (by Nevin Steinberg) — is ideal. But the play as a whole does not yet reward so much care. “This was supposed to be something else,” Guy says, possibly indicting life in general, and making me wonder whether the death last summer of Signature founder James Houghton derailed another droll Eno comedy into something better, if not yet better enough.
The Penitent is at the Atlantic Theater Company through March 26.
Wakey, Wakey is at the Signature Center through March 26.