At one point late in the heady game of The Anarchist, which opened Dec. 2 at the Golden, Patti LuPone plugs up the torrent of words that is pouring forth about her release from prison and says to parole officer Debra Winger, "Gimme a cigarette."
This may not have the trashy snap, crackle and pop of Two-Gun Gertie's "Got a butt, buddy?" in "Roxie Hart," but it's a rueful reminder of how the incarcerated used to chat around the old cellblock. That was 1942, and this is 2012.
Cathy, the prisoner LuPone plays, has college-educated herself into 35 years of prison because of a politically motivated bank robbery that resulted in the murder of three people. Now, she has now come to Ann, her resistant and departing caseworker, for one last plea. Having found God (and the thesaurus) in the interim, it is a windy and eloquent argument, replete with brainy sociopolitical references. For 70 minutes, cat and mouse fling some pretty high-toned verbiage back and forth.
David Mamet is the author and director of this enterprise, so the talk rises and falls and cascades in a very thoughtful and thought- filled fashion. And it's deadly serious. Mamet's motive in writing the play can be found in a flyer tucked into the Playbill — a reprint of the piece he did a few weeks ago in The New York Times in which he recalled rubbing shoulders with the radical Weather Underground during his college days in the 1960s. The Anarchist has, it seems, a real-life reference point — Judith Clark, a Weatherman still jailed for a 1981 crime, eligible for parole when she's 107 — and it asks the question: Is her continued incarceration a political act?
Ordinarily at his openings, Mamet keeps a low (if not invisible) profile. For this he showed up, did the red carpet and posed for pictures, looking his usual idiosyncratic self in a French beret and black-tinted specs. Speaking to the press would, of course, be pressing it — he believes his plays speak for themselves, and flyers are helpful.
Sure enough, when the after-party convened at The Red Eye Grill, he made a beeline for a second-floor inner-sanctum and stayed, surrounded by friends and family.
Half the cast — the Broadway-debuting Winger — followed suit after posing fleetingly for photographs. Jaws dropped like dominos among the assembled TV reporters and print scribes. Winger had previously done a press meet 'n' greet with LuPone for the same people and proved not only to be accessible but charming and often hilarious.
But on opening night, she blithely decided she had had her fill of public relations.
Which left LuPone holding the bag all by herself with the press. Trouper that she is, she picked it right up and ran with it, singing the praises of the MIA loud and clear.
She fervently hoped that The Anarchist, a two-character sister-act, lays to rest the lingering criticism that Mamet doesn't write good roles for women (never mind that both these characters are lesbians and are played in pantsuits). It was a theory that she never subscribed to, "having done a pretty good share of David's plays myself."
Before and after Evita defined her as a musical force-of-nature, she was toiling in Mamets like The Woods, All Men Are Whores, The Blue Hour, The Water Engine, Edmond, The Old Neighborhood and his movies like "Heist" and "State and Main."
Rumor has it that The Anarchist was written with her in mind. "So he says," LuPone confirmed. And how does that make her feel? " Are you kidding, Harry? I'm the luckiest person alive. I've never had anything written for me. If this is true, it will be the first role that was written for me in my career, which is — what, 40-plus years!
"There's nothing I don't like about Cathy. She's intelligent, she's sympathetic, she's vulnerable, she's strong, she's passionate. She's passionate because she believes in her country. She's a philosopher. She has a desire to help other people. . . ."
Mamet is one of two great influences in LuPone's career; the other, she said, is Stephen Sondheim. And a musical background has helped her in delivering Mamet's dialogue. "He's very musical, and you have to give yourself over to the music of his rhythm — the rhythm of the dialogue. You have to give yourself over to it."
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As for her partner-in-crime constantly returning the serves on stage in this game of intense verbal tennis, she found Winger a delight to work with: "This was Debra's first time in this kind of an environment, and she was vulnerable to it and really wanted to be a part of it — and that was great to see, to see that kind of energy."
Having gotten away with a Saturday night opening (with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), lead producer Jeffrey Richards pushed the envelope a little more by booking The Anarchist for a 4 PM Sunday opening. Why? you wonder. "Why not?" he shot back. "So people could enjoy the show and have an early Sunday, that's all."
This is the seventh Mamet play that Richards has produced. "We were going to start this in London, but we decided to do it here first. There's still a lot of interest in doing it in London — and Australia and throughout this country, as a matter of fact.
"It's interesting to produce an artist like David, who has an enormous body of work that has held up as a reference as opposed to somebody doing their first play."
Richards' next Mamet calls for another Saturday night opening, Dec. 9, one theatre away from the Golden Theatre at the Schoenfeld Theatre: Glengarry Glen Ross. First-nighters included Hamish Linklater (who's turning playwright Jan. 31 via The Vandal with Holly Hunter at The Flea); Marin Ireland; a freshly feted Jamie deRoy (who hightailed it over to the York Theatre Company for Starting Here, Starting Now with its original cast Loni Ackerman, Margery Cohen and George Lee Andrews — a one-night-only event that has been extended to two more Sundays, Dec. 9 and Dec. 16); John Cullum (fresh from his Detroit run and looking for work); James Earl Jones and wife Cecilia Hart; director Alex Timbers (readying for The Public consumption of David Byrne's Imelda Marcos musical, Here Lies Love, in March, with Ruthie Ann Miles and Jose Llana — "Your head will be spinning by the number of shoes"); Josh Lucas (back from rural Virginia filming "Wish You Well" with Ellen Burstyn and desperate to do a play again after four years); Elizabeth Ashley and her The Best Man and Dividing the Estate director, Michael Wilson; Superior Donuts Tony nominee Jon Michael Hill (taking a break from "Elementary" sleuthing on CBS); Justin Guarini; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? helmsman Pam MacKinnon; Atlantic Theater Company's Neil Pepe and Mary McCann (both of whom have done well by Mamet in the past); Mark Blum (currently of The Good Mother); Lee Wilkof (soon to be seen in the Martin Balsam role in Breakfast at Tiffany's); Sami Gayle; Newsies director Jeff Calhoun; An Enemy of the People bros Richard Thomas and Boyd Gaines (Thomas next plays an FBI agent in FX's Cold War spy series, "The Americans," and Gaines is bound for Down Under to tour Australia with James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury in Driving Miss Daisy); Tommy Tune (bound for the Houston Grand Opera to do Cap'n Andy in Show Boat) — plus actress Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. Mamet) and Zosia Mamet (his daughter by Lindsay Crouse).