David Mamet’s The Anarchist didn’t last long on Broadway, just 23 previews and 17 performances, despite the star power that Patti LuPone and Debra Winger brought to its two-person cast.
But Keith Garsson, artistic director of the Boca Raton Theatre Guild, saw something intriguing and powerful in the play. So he chose it to launch the company’s new Primal Forces theater initiative in Fort Lauderdale.
Now running at the Andrews Living Arts Studio, Primal Forces’ The Anarchist is, as Garsson notes, the first post-Broadway production of the play. Though not on a level with Mamet’s best-known, most-produced works — Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow, even the maddening Oleanna — The Anarchist does take an attentive audience on a 70-minute, word-dense journey.
That attentiveness is essential. The plot of The Anarchist is like a jigsaw puzzle in which Mamet and the actors assemble random pieces until, at the end, enough of the puzzle is put together that you grasp the larger story behind the tense meeting of two women on opposite sides of the law.
Cathy (Patti Gardner) has been behind bars for 35 years, convicted of murdering two policemen when she was a member of a radical Weather Underground-style group. Ann (Jacqueline Laggy) is a prison official about to leave her post, but not before she makes one last decision on whether Cathy should be released.
The Anarchist becomes a high-stakes intellectual debate in which words are used in an attempt to persuade, certainly, but also to misdirect. Cathy, who grew up in a wealthy Jewish family, has written an unpublished memoir and claims to have undergone a religious conversion. She is, she swears, a different woman, one who intends to sign over her inheritance and any royalties to the families of the slain officers while she lives out the rest of her life doing charitable work with nuns.
Ann, however, isn’t buying Cathy’s devout, reformed portrait of herself. As the play progresses, with interrupting calls ratcheting up the tension, Ann applies her own manipulative talents, trying to get Cathy to provide a key piece of information about a former lover and accomplice. And as Cathy’s carefully defined new persona begins to crack, we see the rage, psychological darkness and furious will that led to violence all those years ago.
That working-with-nuns bit and a lesbians-behind-bars cliché aside, Mamet — far better known for his obscenity-laced depictions of warring alpha males — has given the women in The Anarchist enough ammunition to fuel an intriguing verbal battle. Under Garsson’s direction, Gardner impressively navigates Cathy’s quick emotional shifts, while Laggy relentlessly but subtly keeps Ann on task.
The Anarchist isn’t one of Mamet’s best plays. But its simple setup, deliberate mysteries and two strong performances make Primal Forces’ debut a promising one.