Somewhere at the heart of The Anarchist lurks a first-rate play straining to break out – almost as eagerly as Cathy, the more pronounced of the work’s two characters, longs to emerge from prison after serving 35 years for killing a cop in a botched robbery. For the realisation of such a project, however, the playwright and director, David Mamet, would have to have developed the project more thoroughly: at 65 minutes, it feels undernourished.
The Anarchist need not have required a traditional pay-off of the kind Mamet has brilliantly provided in his screenplays for crime and heist movies. But the development of Ann, its second personage and Cathy’s jailer, is so sketchy as to rob her struggle with Cathy of compelling interest. Given that throughout his career Mamet has displayed a keen ability to unravel the dynamics of power, this is an odd failing. Here there is no table-turning of the variety Mamet so harrowingly provided in his Oleanna to heighten the tension.
What we witness instead is a rather one-sided colloquy in which Cathy, who longs to see and be forgiven by her seriously ill father, entreats Ann to be released. Of the late-1960s radical politics that led her to commit the crime, Cathy says: “I was young and I was a fool.” She has become a Christian, and religious metaphor infuses her argument.
Utilising dense, quite formal language – contractions are few, sentences are often Latinate and philosophically didactic – Cathy and Ann circle each other on a set containing a couple of tables and two banks of filing cabinets. As Ann, Debra Winger – a luminous, emotionally overflowing screen performer – looks rather ill-at-ease, especially in relation to the dynamic Cathy of Patti LuPone: a natural stage animal gnawing at the bars of her cage.
Mamet encases his characters in a kind of non-realism. Ann is said to have sole authority to grant Cathy’s release: in the US that is a power generally granted only to governors or presidents. In the course of her pleading, Cathy berates Ann for personal failings and resorts to raising her voice: no prisoner serious about gaining freedom would resort to such a tactic, nor would it be tolerated. As for Cathy’s chic, mint-green, Maoist pantsuit, it makes sense only if this is an episode of Fashion Police – or Fashion Prisoner.