Patti LuPone and Debra Winger Weigh the Fate of David Mamet's The Anarchist

By Adam Hetrick
December 1, 2012

The stars of The Anarchist talk about the work, the words and the world of David Mamet's fierce new Broadway drama set in a women's prison.



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Patti LuPone has a confession: "I don't go after anything because I'm lazy." You'd never know it from her voracious work on stage, but the two-time Tony-winning Evita and Gypsy actress, a self-proclaimed "stage rat," hasn't pursued a role until now.

She's back on Broadway this season opposite three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger, the steely-voiced actress of "Terms of Endearment" and "An Officer and a Gentleman," in the new two-woman David Mamet drama The Anarchist, which the playwright is also directing.

"It's been 15 years since I did one of David's plays, it was The Old Neighborhood, and that was too long for me [to wait]," says LuPone, who has known Mamet since the two met on a bus while touring the country with The Acting Company in 1976. "I learn so much from David when I'm in the room with him and I missed that," she says. "I miss being directed by him, listening to him talk about acting, and listening to him talk about life."

So, what's a girl to do? Just ask. Following the Broadway opening of Mamet's Race in 2009, LuPone sent her old pal an e-mail asking for a play. He replied with The Anarchist. Then it almost didn't happen — a 2011 London production was announced without LuPone. "I said to David, 'Let me play it in New York.'" Mamet replied, as LuPone recalls, in his quintessential manner, "F*** London, let's do it here now."

The actress had one more request — Mamet had to direct. "I told him, 'You have to, because I know my best work is when you direct me,'" LuPone says. The playwright obliged.

However, one key piece of the puzzle was still missing — LuPone's co-star. Another actress was originally announced, but the plan didn't come to fruition. It was then that Winger, a no-nonsense straight-talker who held her own among Hollywood boys' club and lived to tell, was announced as LuPone's co-star.

Debra Winger
photo by Joan Marcus
Both women state that storytelling is what compels them to keep acting — and Mamet delivers. "The first thing is always the text and the text spoke to me," says Winger, who is making her Broadway debut with the play. "To me, the acting is the price I have to pay to tell the story."

The 70-minute drama is set in a female penitentiary where a "lifer," played by LuPone, is pleading her case for parole to Winger's character, a composite figure representing the state who must determine the fate of the anarchist.

While the play is a reunion for LuPone and Mamet, it is also a return to one of Winger's passions. Before Hollywood beckoned, the actress was sociology major in college who studied criminal rehabilitation and counseling. "For some reason I was drawn to it, and here I am, as life happens, investigating it again in The Anarchist," she says.

The play, according to Winger, takes a head-on look at "The whole question of rehabilitation. What does that mean and what do we believe in as a nation?"

"You'll recognize certain aspects of my character if you know the politics of the revolution," LuPone says, quietly referring to Judith Clark, who was part of the Weather Underground Organization and remains in prison for her involvement in the 1981 armed robbery of a Brinks security truck, which resulted in the death of two police officers and one of the drivers.

Winger points out, "In New York State no one goes in front of a parole board. And most citizens, voting citizens do not know that. As soon as I found out that existed in the world, let alone New York State, I was in. I thought, 'I've got to talk about that and I've got to say these words on stage.'"

LuPone was compelled, she says, because, "These are cerebral arguments and they're legitimate arguments facing people in prison today. I don't think the performance will ever be incendiary because it might diffuse the argument. The fireworks are in the language. Come in, and sit down, and listen. Let the play do the work, and let the play work on you."

"Where else do we have left for polemics in the world?" Winger asks. "The news is all canned. There's no real information being discussed. David is almost polemical in that way. He will bring both sides of an argument so that we can all reach the bigger question. And that's what I'm looking to do. Is to balance Patti's argument, so that everyone can walk out of the theatre, not with an opinion, but with a bigger question."

(Adam Hetrick is a staff writer for Playbill.com whose work is often seen in the pages of Playbill magazine.)