at the theatre: the anarchist

When David Mamet writes a play with emotionally driven characters and a plot hinging on dangerous points-of-no-return and vigorous debate the results are often visceral, whether you appreciate the mise en scene or not. This playwright specializes in unflinching drama and, yes, it is often riotously funny and startlingly vulgar, too. The point being that love him or hate him – and Mamet has his fair share of vocal champions and detractors – there is no arguing with his skill as a dramatist when he delivers to an audience people living his or her own desperate emotional truths. When Mamet chooses to write a dialectic, however, the results are often less than engaging. His chief skills as a master storyteller drop by the wayside – as they should, the dialectic method is a dialogue in search of the truth and not a debate. Disguised as drama, however, it has little resonance below the neck. The Anarchist, Mamet’s latest play, now in previews at the Golden Theater, unfortunately falls in to the later category. For a man whose reputation has often (maybe unjustly) been said to rest upon a propensity to display his dramatic balls, so to speak, it makes for a doubly disappointing evening at the theater. What’s most frustrating is that the premise doesn’t lack the potential for dramatic fireworks: Cathy, a longtime inmate with ties to a violently anarchic political organization is up for parole. Her warden, Ann, wants to be certain that if Cathy is released it’s for the right reason. What follows is an almost Shavian point-counterpoint on the individual’s responsibility to society versus the state’s responsibilities to the individual, which would make for fascinating reading but not, alas, compelling viewing. Stars Patti LuPone and Debra Winger do their level best to inject a human element into the arguments but the drama onstage is not anarchic or revolutionary or even radical. It’s confused.

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at the theater: seminar

Theresa Rebeck’s new play Seminar is like so much of the fiction that comes in for slaughter from the Hitchens-esque writing teacher played with a deliciously malevolent glee by Alan Rickman: hollow. In fact, to paraphrase the playwright, her play is like the perfect New Yorker story: middlebrow, not too long, intellectually perplexed, and wholly irrelevant. That’s not to say you don’t enjoy it while it plays. Rebeck is great with the one liners. And in a play that’s ostensibly about the creative process (four writers in an overpriced masterclass led by a has-been novelist is a scenario worthy of Sartre) there are ample opportunities for zingers both earned and superfluous. What Rebeck lacks is an attention to detail – not to mention the storyteller’s craft. (What little plot exists hinges on a suspension of disbelief worthy of an Adam Sandler movie.) Current “it” director Sam Gold doesn’t help matters. Is this supposed to be a farce or a comedy of ideas? It’s not outrageous enough to hit the mark as farce and intellectually it’s as thin as weak minestrone. And while we’re at it, why is everyone constantly fidgeting at the wet bar in yet another oversized living room in an unbelievably rent-controlled Upper West Side New York apartment? Crucially what’s missing is believability in both plot and character. It would give the people on stage something worth risking; something relevant, instead of what amounts to a hill of idle, if occasionally amusing, chatter. Hats off to Lily Rabe for suffering the indignity of showing her ass while bringing another dimension to the all-too-simplistic role of a Jane Austen-obsessed feminist who – spoiler alert – fucks her teacher in the end. Alan Rickman is perhaps too good. His sonorous bass imparts Rebeck’s lazy prose with the mistaken semblance of intellectual heft. That’s more weight than this Seminar can bear.

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