David Mamet may not be reinventing his own wheel in his most recent play, The Anarchist, but he's at least changing the spokes. For a director who has arguably created more uses for the word "fuck" than any playwright in American history, The Anarchist is free of four-letter words. And for a director who built his career exploring incendiary worlds of brute machismo (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo), The Anarchist is his first play starring only women.
But beyond these notable innovations, critics in New York had few plaudits for this difficult piece when it debuted on Broadway in 2012. It's set in a spartan women's penitentiary circa present day — or maybe the recent past — where a warden discusses the subject of parole with a longtime prisoner, whose radical actions in the 1970s bubble to the forefront. The conversation soon drifts away from the specifics of the prisoner's history toward familiar Mametian territory such as power, money, and religion.
It sounds ripe for a night of provocative theater, but the New York critics reached an early consensus: It bombed. Mamet himself directed stars Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, and the latter actor received some of the harshest criticism, with the New York Times' Ben Brantley commenting that she "mostly dog paddles" through Mamet's "sea of verbiage," while Scott Brown, writing for New York magazine, said she was "world-weary to the point of near-unconsciousness."
The Anarchist. Previews begin Friday, February 28, and the show runs March 7 through 23 at Andrews Living Arts Studio, 23 NW Fifth St., Fort Lauderdale; 866-811-4111; brtg.org. Tickets cost $20 to $25.
Clearly, this is a show whose reputation precedes it, which makes its South Florida debut, courtesy of the brand-new company Primal Forces, such a bold choice. An offshoot of the Boca Raton Theatre Guild — a company unlikely to stage a play this divisive during its mainstage season at the Willow Theatre — Primal Forces will present works free of seasonal and geographic strictures; its first few plays will analyze the impact of the '60s and '70s counterculture.
In this case, artistic director Keith Garsson is looking forward to the challenge of providing a clean slate for a troubled play and improving on its criticisms. For one, his version will be presented in an intimate black-box space, the 45-seat Andrews Living Arts Studio in Fort Lauderdale.
"The play needs a claustrophobic feel, and on a huge Broadway stage, you didn't get that," says Garsson, who attended a preview of The Anarchist in New York. "[Mamet] writes terrifically. He created two characters with an interesting problem, but he left the door wide open to go to the opposite extreme and try a black box. It's basically two people in a locked room who have to sort out a very difficult issue."
Another reason critics were quick to lambast The Anarchist might be more insidious, according to Garsson. "This is pure speculation, but Mamet had undergone a radical transformation from liberal Democrat to Republican conservative. If you want to get on the bandwagon and say the media has a bias, you can argue that."
But rather than advocating a right-wing agenda, "the play has an anti-hypocrisy stance," Garsson believes. "What makes the play interesting is that both characters expose each other's hypocrisy. The one or two reviews that did mention a Republican slant, I did feel, were unfair."
As for the problem of the acting, Garsson hopes to direct his cast toward a stronger outcome. Watching the play in New York, he knew he wanted Patti Gardner and Jacqueline Laggy, two committed professionals who turn up regularly at Boca Raton Theatre Guild productions and who have spent much of February mastering what has been called Mametspeak — the playwright's copious use of italics, dashes, ellipses, overlaps, interruptions, and deliberately clunky diction to simulate a hyperreal vision of messy human communication. It's a style that can be as exacting as Pinter's or even Shakespeare's.
"Because [Mamet] is so brilliant and his characters are so brilliant, they speak language that is not typical," Gardner says. "Just the information that comes out in a paragraph, it's hard to absorb it when you're just sitting in an audience. It's definitely the hardest script I've ever tackled."
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"The director's job, as I see it, is to make sure you have two realistic people up there delivering great dialogue as naturally as possible," Garsson adds. "You have to find the rhythm of his language and make sure there are two living, breathing people speaking it. It's not enough just to get the Mametspeak correct. I feel sometimes that criticism about Mamet is unfair; he gives you plenty of room to allow the characters to breathe."
Beyond that, details about the play are elusive. To describe the piece beyond a shoestring plot is to spoil its many secrets. Asked which actor would play the prisoner and which the warden, Garsson hedged his answer, saying they're not identified as such. He was careful not to give anything away. The less you know going in, the better.
"In the first 20 percent of the play, they do such a good job of trying to let you figure out what it's about," Garsson says. "Like a lot of mysteries, 25 percent of the people will be scratching their heads; 25 percent of the people will say, 'It's perfectly clear to me'; and the remaining 50 percent will say, 'You know, I followed that, but I didn't understand this.' "
"I just can't wait for people to have a dialogue," Gardner adds. "There's a lot to learn from this script because it's just so dense. I'm dying to know what people will come away with having seen it."