There was a time, not so long ago, when David Mamet wrote trenchant, crackling satires — hilarious morality/amorality plays that, deep down, pushed the buttons of serious issues. Less famous, but no less significant, were his lean, close-to-the-bone dramas that dissected relationships with disturbing nuance and power.
For more than a decade, however, he has been writing sober, faux-serious debates that stack the deck and try to draw blood by picking old scabs with a blunt instrument.
It is hard not to miss the gleeful, dirty-talking Mamet of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Speed-the-Plow” and the movie “Wag the Dog” while getting increasingly exasperated at “The Penitent.” His new straw-man polemic, now playing at the Atlantic Theater he co-founded with William H. Macy in 1985, takes less than 90 minutes, including intermission, to pile simplistic criticism onto the legal system, journalism, psychiatry, love, religion and the ethical culpability of those involved with any of the above. Homophobia, or the accusation of it, is ostensibly the starting point.
Charles (Chris Bauer) is a respected psychiatrist whose teen patient has murdered 10 people with a gun. Instead of focusing on the boy, the press has taken aim on his doctor who, according to the newspaper, has called homosexuality an “aberration.” In reality, in a professional paper, Charles had called homosexuality an “adaptation.”
His wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) and his lawyer (Jordan Lage) urge him to accept a correction, explaining this was a copy editing mistake, perhaps even a Freudian slip by a copy editor. Charles refuses to give up his patient notes and wants to sue for libel, positions that uncover supposed bombshells about the courts, marriage and even his recent rededication to Judaism.
The production is staged with familiar Mamet minimalism by Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic and Mamet specialist. The actors are fine, including Lawrence Gilliard Jr., as a (not incidentally) black defense lawyer with an uncanny knowledge of the Old Testament.
Conversations come in short scenes, brief fragments and dialogue interruptions — familiar Mamet techniques used for far better effect in so many earlier works. The generalizations are banal and, even when Mamet intentionally infuriates, these are not interesting minds with which to argue.
The set, by Tim Mackabee, consists of two angled walls that don’t meet and, between scenes, the actors rearrange a long table to be askew with the walls.
Meanwhile, Mamet, to our sorrow, writes himself into an unconvincing corner.